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Where Two Paths Collide

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John Gallaher John Gallaher

Passion for place and momentum for adventure can come in many different packages

In our mostly rural places and paths, some roads spiral through the woods, while others get you exactly where you want to go. Some trails take the roundabout route, while others provide direct access to our mountains, lakes, and streams. Recreation is a tremendous aspect of our lives here in the region. But unlimited access is too often not available to everyone; passion for place and the momentum for adventure can come in many different packages.

For those folks with a medical condition, permanent disability, or even a temporary ailment, living in our area can be a frustrating firestorm of limited access and little awareness of the issues that exist for them. Accessing public places can be a challenge when business owners don’t comply with disability standards. Recreation seems far from feasible for some in rustic settings. But, it turns out, not impossible.

Meet lifetime Sanders County resident John Gallaher. Born and raised in Thompson Falls, Montana, Gallaher enlisted in the Navy after high school graduation when it became apparent that he would be a first pick in the draft. Gallaher spent his last tour in Vietnam where he was assigned to a helicopter gunship squadron repairing weapons systems for its nine detachments scattered along the Cambodian border and the Mekong Delta in southeastern Vietnam. His squadron worked with river patrol boats and SEALS, getting them “out of a pinch” when needed. When Gallaher returned to Montana four years after enlisting, life was a little different indeed.

“The service can be such an adrenaline rush,” says Gallaher, “it can be kind of boring when you get out.”

Though Gallaher was interested in attending school at a University, he recalls that the mood towards veterans during that time was often not very positive. He opted to work construction, moving to Superior for more work. In 1973, on the night of October 13, Gallaher and friends took their sports car to Missoula for a late birthday celebration. Life changed a lot more for Gallaher that night. They hit a gravel bar going too fast and flipped end-over-end two-and-a-half times. Gallaher spent the next fifteen months in a hospital with a broken neck.

“I didn’t even catch malaria [in Vietnam],” says Gallaher. But here he was, in a cruel twist of fate, surviving a risky overseas military operation only to be permanently wounded while playing back at home shortly after returning.

As a result of the car accident, Gallaher is now a quadriplegic; a condition caused by damage to the brain or the spinal cord at a high level, in particular spinal cord injuries secondary to an injury to the cervical spine. This injury, known as a lesion,  causes people to lose partial or total mobility of all four limbs. Typical causes of this damage are trauma (such as car crash, gunshot wound, fall, or sports injury) or disease (such as transverse myelitis, polio, or spina bifida).

Gallaher’s father built him a house in Sanders County that accommodated his needs, and there he has been for the past thirty-five years. Though times were certainly tough, coping with this new lifestyle, Gallaher found the strength and courage to rise above and help others. Gallaher got involved with the Summit Independent Living Center, which covers western Montana.

“The philosophy of independent living promotes consumer control, peer support, self-help, self-determination, equal access, and individual and systems advocacy in order to maximize the leadership, empowerment, independence, and productivity of individuals with disabilities. Full inclusion and integration of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of American society is primary. This philosophy is implemented through the Montana Independent Living Council and the network of Montana centers for independent living. The four centers and their satellites provide statewide coverage with centers situated in Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Billings, Glasgow, Miles City, Glendive, Kalispell, Ronan, and Hamilton.” (www.dphhs.mt.gov/independentlivingservices)  

For Summit and his own community, Gallaher helps to encourage businesses to accommodate people with all kinds of disabilities; he is vital in the battle to make life better for everyone in our little towns and on our trails. He helps natural resource management agencies and entities, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and Avista to provide access and outdoor opportunities for people with disabilities.

Gallaher has also been essential in the creation of a local group dedicated to assistance and education. Sanders County United for Disabilities is an advocacy group for people with disabilities that meets quarterly, spending time in classrooms, promoting community partnerships, and providing local people dealing with new disabilities counseling and assistance. Everyone counts—and everyone deserves the opportunity to get outside and appreciate our stellar sights.

“Some mobility impairment is permanent,” says Gallaher. “While some people will heal—even a pregnant woman, though not considered disabled, definitely has an impairment to mobility!”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 with the intention to “enable society to benefit from the skills and talents of individuals with disabilities, allow us all to gain from their increased purchasing power and ability to use it, and lead to fuller, more productive lives for all Americans.”  (www.ada.gov) ADA provides some of the basic components needed for accessibility. Though state and federal agencies are required to comply with ADA standards, some take it to another level. Gallaher helps them do this locally.

Brian Burky, recreation specialist for Avista, believes that sites should do more than meet minimum requirements for access. He utilizes site visits by partners including Gallaher to ensure that area recreation sites are practical and workable for those with mobility impairments. Simply altering the direction in which a door opens can make a large difference in ease of use; there are so many different kinds of disabilities, it takes a combination like Burky and Gallaher to make things happen above and beyond the scope of the law. Burky began working for Avista in 1999, bringing with him a compassion for people and experience with disabilities issues.

In college, Burky had two jobs that exponentially increased his awareness of special needs. He worked at the local YMCA, teaching swimming and serving as a camp counselor—where there were quite a few children with special needs. He also helped the Dean of Student Affairs, a quadriplegic, get ready for work everyday at 5 am. Burky traveled with the disabled educator, driving him wherever he needed to go.

“He was a PhD,” remembers Burky. “I was his driver and he would sit back there and get philosophical—that was a real eye-opener for me, recognizing the challenges people with that condition face.” At this comment Gallaher chuckles, admitting that “old people in wheelchairs can get awfully opinionated.”

Gallaher explains that Burky’s work with Avista has been paramount in Sanders County. When Gallaher met Burky, an instant partnership formed. Burky now serves on the board for SCUD and enlists Gallaher’s help and advice on new and existing recreation sites for Avista and management agencies.

“Almost all Avista [recreation] sites are ADA accessible now,” says Gallaher. “There weren’t any before.”

Gallaher is an avid sportsman—hunting and fishing whenever possible. He has aided Avista and the U.S. Forest Service in enhancing existing sites or creating new sites that are accessible for all. There are a lot of factors to consider when designing a site that can be accessible for people with disabilities—whether it is a building, outdoor structure, trail, or viewpoint. Trail material, handrails, parking spaces, curb-cuts in pavement, restroom access, signage, and dock accessibility are among the many considerations.

Sites on Avista property with ADA accessible features include: Pilgrim Creek Park in the town of Noxon; Noxon Dam Overlook; Cabinet Gorge Dam Overlook;  Bull River day use area has accessible trails. The Bull River Campground has the first phase of ADA accessible trails in, with more to come; Northshore has trails at the day use area and ADA standard camping pads;  The Clark Fork Access Site along Highway 200 in Idaho has many trails, 30 percent of which utilize stone dust material (good for wheelchairs); Flat Iron fishing access site features an ADA accessible fishing pier, parking kiosk, a restroom, and more; The Frog Pond has trail projects in progress (but not yet completed) and a day-use fishing area that is ADA compliant;  Thompson Falls State Park (pending grant awards currently) will feature a trail from the Post Office in town all the way to the State Park.

For more information on trails and recreation sites with access for people with disabilities, or to get involved with the Sanders County United for Disabilities group, please contact Brian Burky at 406-847-1283.

Avista will be placing signage at the Flat Iron fishing access site this month to acknowledge Gallaher’s dedication and accomplishments in the realm of ADA awareness in the community. It is certainly worth taking a look at; the myriad of accessible recreation sites is a tribute to the hard work and perseverance of people like Gallaher and Burky. It is also a sign of the times—time for everyone to appreciate the land in which we live, no matter how fast you travel or how long you take.

“Access to outdoor recreation adds a lot to the quality of life,” points out Burky.

“And someone with a disability has just as much right to get eaten by a grizzly as anyone else,” Gallaher adds with a grin.

 Kate Wilson is a Project Journalist for Avista.

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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