Entering the Adapted Hobby Zone

A hobby is a great way to have fun, learn and geek out on a subject of interest. Hobbies also lead to cool social interactions with others who enjoy the same pastime. Arguably the best part of a hobby is when a person becomes so immersed, they enter a state that psychologists refer to as being “in the zone” — a hyper-focused, almost spiritual frame of mind where the only thing that exists is the here and now of the activity. Here’s a look at three hobbyists, and the adaptions they’ve made to get the most out of their passions.

Darren Brehm owns 10 pinball machines that he plays using an adaptive controller.

Darren Brehm owns 10 pinball machines that he plays using an adaptive controller.


Pinball Wizard

Darren Brehm fell in love with pinball as a kid playing with his dad. He kept the hobby alive through high school and college and even integrated it when he fell in love again. “My wife and I played pinball when we were dating,” says Brehm, 47. A United Spinal board member, he refused to let a C4-5 spinal cord injury 26 years ago end his relationship with the game. “In my early days of SCI, it was challenging to find something to do that wasn’t patronizing, something that was normal. For me that was pinball.”

When Brehm came home from SCI rehab, his wife suggested he buy a pinball machine to help get him out of his “new SCI funk,” and a friend helped him adapt it. Since Brehm doesn’t have hand, wrist or finger movement, they attached two pieces of line to the leaf switches inside the machine that operate the right and left flippers. Brehm then attached each line to a carpal tunnel glove, enabling him to operate the flippers with bicep and shoulder movement. “I was back playing pinball, doing something normal!” he says.

“To take the next step, my dad and I created a ‘version 2.0 controller’ that has the switch controller wires routed to electronics in a box that sits on my lap so I could operate the flipper switches by hitting two red discs,” says Brehm.

“Everything about it, the look of the game, the sounds, the lights, even the unique smell of pinball machines brings me back to my childhood and young adulthood,” says Brehm. “And it is something I can do as well as I could before my injury. Also, it is a great thing to do with my kids — twin 8-year-olds — and with friends. It’s a perfect equalizer.”

“I enjoy pinball so much I bought a second game, and a third, and now I have 10 machines,” says Brehm. Each machine has a different theme, including Twilight Zone, Monster Bash and Metallica, and each offers a different audio-visual experience. “They combine nostalgia and pop culture with the fun of a game.”

Brehm says pinball machines go for around $6,000. However, there are a lot of enthusiasts, and if you buy one and want to trade or sell it, you can usually break even or possibly make money on the deal because there is a healthy market for them.

There are pinball shows all over the country and social media has made it very easy to geek out with other people that are into the hobby.  “Pinball fanatics are a bit nerdy, which is cool,” says Brehm. “They are a fun group to hang with, playing pinball, drinking beer and socializing. When they find out I’m in a chair, they are super supportive.”

This includes the person who designed Brehm’s current adaptive controller, version 3.0. A wiring harness installed on all of his machines enables him to plug his controller box into the machine he wants to play, while his friends can still use the standard flipper buttons as player two. Also, there is a pinball manufacturer called Jersey Jack that makes machines with an interface that allows a computer mouse to operate the flippers. This is something that should easily hook up to any type of switch controller, like sip-and-puff or chin control.

For good players, pinball is a game of skill that requires practice, superior coordination and split-second timing. “Every time the ball comes down to a flipper you have the opportunity to put the ball where you want, somewhere that creates points and/or desired effects. This requires coordination and timing similar to a major league home run hitter,” says Brehm.

A skilled player can, more often than not, push the flipper at precisely the right time to make the ball go where they choose — this is known as “having the ball in control.” The more controlled shots, the longer you are in play and the more points you accumulate.

“In addition to the social aspect of pinball, it’s good brainwork,” says Brehm. “When I’m playing, I’m so focused on the game, nothing else exists — I’m 100% in the here and now.”

Total Control with Remote Control

Cameron Shaw-Doran has been racing remote-controlled cars since he was in the fourth grade. As soon as he got home from rehab following a C6-7 injury 22 years ago, he bought a new RC car. “It was cool because being in a wheelchair had nothing to do with it. Whether I was working on the car or driving, I was just Cameron, not ‘Cameron, quadriplegic,’” says Shaw-Doran, now 40. “Nothing else existed while I was into my RC. It was also a great way to hang with friends and do fun things like ride on a dirt road in the passenger seat of my friend’s car while driving my RC in front of their car.”

With his drones, Cameron Shaw-Doran can explore places previously inaccessible to him.

With his drones, Cameron Shaw-Doran can explore places previously inaccessible to him.

Shaw-Doran’s next RC interest was featherweight helicopters. They are easy to fly, fit in the palm of your hand and you can fly them in your house. “They have two main rotator blades that rotate in opposite directions, which makes them easy to fly. And they can be purchased for as little as $40,” he says. He and his friends flew them around and through the house. “It was fun and easy to learn. Then I advanced into higher performance, more difficult to fly, blade helicopters, and I had a great time flying them.”

The current hobby that has Shaw-Doran’s full focus is drones. “My first drone didn’t have a camera, but it was and is easy to fly,” he says. “I was hooked.” What he really likes about drones is the easy learning curve. “I would fly it through my yard, through the trees, in and around the swing set and have a blast.”

As with many hobbyists, Shaw-Doran’s passion for drones led to better, more advanced models. Last year he purchased a DJI Mavic 2 Pro Drone that has a high-quality, built-in camera and can be flown by viewing the video feed on a smart phone or tablet. It has a range of 11 miles and can fly at over 30 miles an hour.

“One of the first things I did was fly it down a riverbed — a place that had been inaccessible to me,” he says. “It was so cool to be able to fly through this area and see it in real time on my cell phone. It was like a flight dream: I was wondering ‘What’s over there?’ Oh yeah, I can fly over there and check it out! It is surreal and completely addicting. When I’m flying the drone, I’m fully focused on what I’m seeing during the flight as well as what I want to see and where I want to go.”

Shaw-Doran is so hooked on drones he is working on getting his FAA certification, starting a commercial drone business and making enough that he can get off SSDI. “It has gone from something that is super fun and a passion, to something that hopefully will be a successful business.”

Dashing Through the Desert

Andy Blood didn’t know he loved driving 900 horsepower trophy trucks at speeds over 100 miles per hour in off-road desert races until he started a nonprofit to help get other people with disabilities back on the road. In 2012, eight years after becoming a T12 paraplegic, Blood and his wife started Blood Brothers Foundation, a nonprofit organization to fund adaptive vehicle modifications for those who needed them (see Giving Back, bottom).

When he started Blood Brothers, Blood became so involved in hand controls that he decided to have a set installed in a Polaris RZR 2-seater, a utility task vehicle. “I was hooked. For me it was better than anything I’d tried — faster, more fun — it was my introduction to off-roading,” he says. “I drove it and pushed it as far as I could.”

In 2015, he decided to try to race against the best in the world and moved into trophy trucks — the unlimited class of off-road desert racing. He put together a professional off-road racing team called Runnit Racing, complete with shop and desert test track on his property near Grand Junction, Colorado, and went to work building and testing two trophy trucks. Blood, 39, was injured while working as a lineman and used some of the money he had received in a settlement to cover the expensive endeavor.

Blood and his team designed a unique right-hand control that has a twist throttle, push brake and a push-button actuator for shifting. All of his team vehicles — trophy trucks, several RZRs and a pair of Class 1 race buggies — are equipped with hand controls. The team uses the race buggies to pre-run every racecourse and take notes on every bump, twist and turn of the course to compile information his co-pilot will read to him during the race.

As Blood drives, he relies on his co-pilot to call out target speeds, upcoming turns and rough sections gleaned from the pre-run course notes, as well as monitor all the gauges. It is a team effort. “Your adrenaline is maxed, especially going 100 mph in thick dust where a momentary lapse in concentration could mean hitting an obstacle that will flip the truck. It is such a rush that after the finish line I don’t want to get out of the truck.”

Over the past few years Blood has competed in many iconic desert races, including the Mint 400 — where he rolled his truck — and the NORRA 1000 in Baja Mexico. “Our team spends countless hours preparing the truck, practicing at the track and pre-running courses,” he says. “As soon as I’m at the starting line of a race I’m in the zone — nothing else exists, just the here and now of racing. On the course, I have to be 100% focused every second.”

Now that Blood has achieved his goal of racing at the ultimate level, he plans on retiring from trophy trucks and returning to UTV Polaris RZR class racing, which has seen an explosion of new racers. “I also want to put more time and effort into helping people out — in the end, helping people feels better than wasting a bunch of money for a plastic trophy.”

• Adaptive pinball or RC controller info, dcbpinball@yahoo.com
• Blood Brothers Foundation, bloodbrothersfoundation.org
• Jersey Jack Pinball Machines, jerseyjackpinball.com
• Runnit Racing, runnitracing.com
• “The Revolution Will Be 3D Printed,” newmobility.com/2018/12/the-revolution-will-be-3d-printed/

Bashing with Brehm

When Darren Brehm isn’t honing his pinball skills, there’s a good chance he’s driving one of his remote-controlled vehicles. “RC cars are addicting and crazy fast — they will do 70 miles an hour,” says Brehm. There are RC versions of most full-size competitive cars and trucks, from street racers, to off-roaders, to “bashers” that simply drive around and bash through dirt and mud. “I’m a basher driver,” says Brehm. “I like going out in a field or housing development and just bashing like crazy. In addition to driving RCs with my kids, it’s something I enjoy doing with my adult friends. It is a fun way to be outside and be social and/or have my buddies come over and work on them.”

A high-quality RC car can be purchased, complete with remote controller, for around $170. RC cars usually come with a pistol grip/twist knob controller. Brehm adapted his by purchasing a controller for an RC plane, which has two joysticks for control, and putting goalpost handgrips on the joysticks. An inexpensive way to get custom joystick extensions is to have them 3D printed (see resources).

Giving Back

Andy Blood poses in front of one of his race team’s Class 1 buggies.

Andy Blood poses in front of one of his race team’s Class 1 buggies.

Before he discovered his love of racing, Andy Blood founded Blood Brothers Foundation, a nonprofit that funds vehicle modifications including hand controls, lifts, ramps and steering devices. “I started Blood Brothers because I realized how important adaptive vehicle modification is for independence for wheelchair users. But it is often financially out of reach,” says Blood. “When our organization chooses an applicant, we get their vehicle modified, which provides a great deal of freedom. Our goal for this year to raise funds to provide modifications for at least one applicant a month.”

Bryce Allard, 42, became a C6 quad a year and a half ago, and is a recent Blood Brothers recipient. The foundation provided hand controls and a Q-Lock for Allard’s van — modifications that were financially out of his reach. Blood Brothers also funded and arranged the install at a local shop. “Having my van set up so I can drive again, and not having to rely on somebody is a huge part of getting my independence back,” says Allard.

Blood’s philanthropy doesn’t end with Blood Brothers. Part of Runnit Racing’s mission is to introduce other wheelchair users to off-road racing through Camp Runnit, multi-day camps that take wheelers out on Blood’s desert test track as passengers and give them an intro to desert racing with hand controls. “Driving was a blast. It’s so cool to have control of an off-road vehicle with that much power — so much that when you hit the gas it squats down in the rear suspension, then takes off like you are being launched,” says Andy Anderson, a T12 para who took part.

** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/01/entering-the-adapted-hobby-zone/

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