Todd Lemay and Watts College Dean Jonathan Koppell

ASU alum paving pathways for people with disabilities

By

Jane Lee

Todd Lemay remembers longing for snowless days. The weather constricted the Maine native in ways others couldn’t comprehend. That wasn’t all; steps robbed him of his freedom. Beaches did the same.

“Every house, every apartment, even restaurants — they all have steps in Maine,” he said.

Lemay was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disease that has led him to using a wheelchair for most of his life. He sometimes walked as a child, but that would only lead to more broken bones and more surgeries. He tired of it in his teens. “I decided it’s not worth going through all the surgeries just so that I can maybe walk 20 feet on my own,” he said.

Lemay, 48, figures he’s suffered more than 80 broken bones — a figure that quickly climbs into the 100s if he includes ribs. Those crack easily.

He doesn’t seek sympathy, though. Rather, he considers himself lucky.

“A lot of people out there are in much more difficult situations than I am in,” Lemay said. “So the fact that I can take care of myself and do so much, those are all blessings.”

Arizona opened his eyes to many of them.

A whole new world

After one of his friends talked up Arizona and urged Lemay to tag along on a trip, it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the Valley of the Sun.

“I was just amazed at how flat everything was out here,” he recalled. “I fell in love with the weather, and I fell in love with how everything was just so accessible. I felt a larger sense of freedom.”

Lemay landed at Arizona State University in 1992, graduating three years later with a degree in accounting. He immersed himself in this work for some time before launching an IT management company.

A simple Google search led him to change careers.

Lemay was on the hunt for an all-terrain wheelchair and stumbled upon a company in the United Kingdom named TerrainHopper that was manufacturing exactly that — electrically powered off-road mobility vehicles that can conquer the type of challenging terrain a normal wheelchair can’t. Yet they weren’t shipping to the U.S. — that is, until Lemay persuaded them to send him one a year later.

For the first time in his life, when he returned to his summer home in Maine, he enjoyed beach trips in a way he only previously had in dreams.

“I didn't have to have someone push me and set me in one spot and that's where I would stay until they moved me,” he said. “I can go out on the beach with my wife and hold her hand. I was never able to do that before. I love the ocean, and for my entire life I’ve only been able to enjoy it from the end of the parking lot.

“It opened up a whole new world for me.”

Open for business

Everywhere he went with his TerrainHopper, he was routinely stopped. The same question always came: Why is there not something like this in the U.S.?

So Lemay again pleaded with TerrainHopper, this time for an even bigger ask. He requested licensing, manufacturing and U.S. distribution rights, insisting “that if they’re going to do something here in the U.S., I’m the right person to help them do that.”

Lemay opened his own shop in Tempe in 2017, replicating the work of his friends in Europe to create customizations that can accommodate almost every physical disability. TerrainHopper USA was born.

“We license the technology from them, so we don’t import anything from them, but we actually manufacture everything from the ground up here in Tempe,” he said.

Lemay, who has donated several of these vehicles to nonprofits around the area, was featured in an article in the Phoenix Business Journal around the time he started full production last fall, prompting ASU President Michael M. Crow to offer congratulations in a handwritten letter.

Shortly after the new year, a student convinced Lemay that ASU should have one.

Spreading the joy

Christina Chambers was already well-versed in the TerrainHopper. The ASU student was managing two of them while interning with Ability360, which offers programs to empower people with disabilities. Chambers was ultimately connected with Lemay, who requested her help with some photography. She, too, uses a wheelchair and sees life much like Lemay.

During a meeting one day, Lemay was pleasantly surprised to hear Chambers is majoring in parks and recreation — but also heartbroken to find that her disability prevented her from joining many off-site classes in different parks.

Hiking has become one of Lemay’s favorite hobbies since obtaining a TerrainHopper. San Tan Regional Park is a short drive from his house, and he frequents it often with his wife, Letitia.

“You look at that park with hundreds of acres and dozens of trails, and with the normal wheelchair you could probably access maybe 2% of that,” he said. “When I got my TerrainHopper, we started going out and doing a different trail every weekend and it turns that we can do about 95% of that park now.”

Lemay wanted Chambers to have that same experience. Chambers wanted it for every ASU student.

“One of the first classes we take in parks and rec talks about the important things everybody in life needs to succeed and be happy,” Chambers said. “The outdoors and nature are essential to happiness, and I was missing that component of my life for so long.”

Expanding possibilities

Chambers recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of what she calls her “Life Day.”

“It’s the day I celebrate being alive and accepting this as my new life,” she said. “I woke up one morning paralyzed from the chest down.”

Her immune system attacked her spinal cord, causing permanent injury when she was 12. Looking back, she believes that’s when she was given her purpose, even though she didn’t know it at the time.

“I was meant to be in this community and help out those in my community and kind of introduce them to all that they are capable of,” Chambers said.

For Chambers, who will graduate in December, Lemay offered the same for her. She admires the immense joy he brings, “in his own life, in his own acceptance, and in his own journey.”

She wants to help him spread that.

“It’s contagious,” Chambers said. “I post on social and I'm like, come visit me, stay at my house, we will go hiking, I will take you out on the TerrainHoppers.”

Kelly Ramella, an associate instructional professional serving as the coordinator of the therapeutic recreation program and faculty with the School of Community Resources and Development, has witnessed the impact this vehicle has had on students like Chambers.

Adventure is now accessible for all.

“She wanted to be a part of everything that all other students have an opportunity to do, even climbing “A” Mountain,” Ramella said. “Her being able to use the TerrainHopper to experience ASU like everyone else was really quite emotional for me because it's something that's really important for all of our students. We want to ensure that we’re being as inclusive as we possibly can.”

In September, Chambers and Ramella were on hand when Lemay gifted a TerrainHopper — they start at $18,000  — to the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and invited Dean Jonathan Koppell to get in the driver’s seat.

“You realize what it gives individuals is independence,” Ramella said. “It gave them the ability to navigate the outdoors in their own way and at their own speed.”

Bridging the gap

Chambers was recently hiking the Buffalo Park Loop in Flagstaff when she met a man who had sustained a broken neck and a brain injury in a dirt bike accident, changing the way he experienced the outdoors. He missed the old way. 

Chambers got him on the TerrainHopper, which introduces a sensation similar to riding a dirt bike, and took in the biggest smile.

“He was crying,” she said. “His girlfriend was crying, because here he is hiking and off-roading just like he used to. That is why I advocate for this, because it not only changed my life, but I see the opportunity for it to change so many lives.

“You don’t look at it and think, that’s a wheelchair, or that’s a medical device. You look at it and you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s really cool. I want to try it.’ I think it bridges that gap of how people view disability and what it actually is.”