Who cares if you can't walk too well when you're 60ft down and on top of the world?

And better kit means the able-bodied and disabled are getting extreme side by side
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The Independent Online

Shane Broderick is paralysed from the neck down. But that doesn't stop him driving. In fact, one of his favourite pastimes is to go off-road. He steers his specially adapted car up steep banks and across rivers, using a rod on top of his helmet which connects to the power-steering system, and accelerates and decelerates by blowing and sucking on a tube. "It's easy," he says. "And it gets me to the top of mountains for the view."

Shane, 26, who broke his back in a horse race four years ago, isn't allowed to drive on the open road. But in July Britain's first off-road driving centre opened, so he no longer has to travel to Sweden for his driving thrills – the Xtreme Motorsports Centre in Wales has imported Woodstars, the specially-designed disabled motorcars, and has 500 acres of varied terrain.

There is hardly a sport today which isn't accessible to the UK's physically disabled, however severe the impairment, and many require little adaptation to accommodate disabilities. Scuba diving is one example. Trish Thompson is a paraplegic diving instructor: "I just swim using my arms, and use webbed gloves to help," she says. In fact, the more equipment required by a given sport, the more parity there is between the able-bodied and disabled who take part. Better still, extreme or adventure sports often have the advantage of adaptable equipment. According to Gordon Bloor, a volunteer for the British Disabled Water Ski Association: "Anyone who can grip, even using their wrists, can ski. Last year we had a thalidomide water-skier who could do all the tricks and jumps. He used a harness, and could let go by releasing a strap with his teeth. We have enough experience and methodology to get anybody up and on the water."

Often the solution is ingenious. In 2000, Jack Slater, totally blind, sailed a boat with the help of an organisation called Sailability, and received his certificate of competence as a skipper requiring "sighted assistance at sea". He set his course, like everybody else, using a chart map. The difference was that the coastline was drawn over in a glitter pen, so he could feel it, and his audio compass beeped when it was in the right position. "It is an awesome thing to be totally blind at the helm of a yacht at sea in a gale," he says. "I was too busy to be blind." Many new opportunities have been created by charitable organisations such as the Back-Up and the Calvert Trust, which view extreme and adventure sports as an effective way of bringing confidence and empowerment to the newly, and longer-term, disabled. "We pushed paragliding and microlighting as disabled sports and people have been doing those for around five years," says Bobby Crosbie at the Calvert Trust.

Traditionally, archery and table tennis were used to rehabilitate newly physically disabled people. Today, adrenaline sports provide an alternative. As Bobby puts it: "We get people in straight from the spinal units now." Following Trish's car crash at university, which rendered her a paraplegic, she says her first "multi-activity week" with Back-Up was a changing point. "I soon learnt that when I went on a water -skiing weekend, I could do without all the 'equipment' you think you'll need. In those early days, these sports had a huge influence on my confidence and self-image."

Many sports are viewed by disabled people as a great leveller. As Andy, a skiing enthusiast, puts it: "It makes me think I'm the same as everybody else, when I watch people standing up on two skis wiping out as I glide down a black run on my special skis." Moreover, disabled sports teams are increasingly competing against able-bodied counterparts. Viv Orchard, a professional water-skier, and disabled, says: "That is the way it is going at competition level. Disabled water-skiers now do the 'outside' slalom, which means they can compete against able-bodied people. They used to do the 'inside', easier, slalom but they are getting more and more skilled."

It is inevitable that some outdoor sports involve foreign travel, and the Calvert Trust, Back-Up, and many others facilitate trips abroad. "We are soon off to Nepal taking a group white-water rafting," says Bobby.

Many disabled people say they enjoy extreme sports because they get out of their usual environment. Andy became paraplegic as a result of a climbing accident, so he enjoys skiing most because it gets him back into the mountains. He is impressed by the increasing number of resorts open to him.

"Whistler, in Canada, has a new disabled programme starting and Are in Sweden has one purely for tetraplegics, with special ski-carts. The instructors are qualified to teach people with all disabilities. Blind people get around attached to an instructor by a tether, who follows giving verbal instructions."

But, he adds, awareness is still limited. "Not all disabled people realise these options are open to them." Rikki Singh from the Scuba Trust is convinced that a bit of publicity is all that's needed. "Since a recent article about scuba diving in a disability magazine, I can't cope because the phone never stops ringing."

Those disabled people who worry about cost or assume their disability will not be catered for should think again. Back-Up never turn anybody away because they don't have enough money. "They work it out on a case-by-case basis, and will subsidise those who say they cannot afford it," says Andy. The culture of sports today is far from exclusive. As Phil Bird puts it: "We never say no. We say, 'I'm sure we can work it out'."

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