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I'm John Morris, the 27-year-old globetrotter behind this accessible travel website, WheelchairTravel.org! I regularly receive e-mails from readers curious about my disability and how it came to be. Since I'm always focused on writing about destinations and ways to make travel more accessible, I rarely have an opportunity to write about myself. If you would like to learn more about my life's journey to this point, read on. If you'd rather read my single paragraph press bio, you can access that here.
Before I get started, I feel obligated to offer a trigger warning. My life has seen some painful moments, and I've shared a photo or two below which may make some people uneasy. My crashed vehicle, for instance.
My life before disability
I grew up as a typical middle-class kid. My family bounced around a bit - from Pennsylvania to Maryland and then Virginia, before finally settling in Florida. I developed a love of travel at a very young age, thanks to the many vacations my family was blessed to take. In middle and high school, my primary interests were golf, the History Channel and website design. I was also the editor of my high school yearbook and student newspaper. I banned use of the oxford comma, in case you were wondering.
After graduating high school, I enrolled at Florida State University. I studied history, became involved in politics, played intramural sports and renewed my Christian faith in the Catholic Church. Sophomore year, I began taking solo weekend trips to destinations in the U.S. and abroad. At the end of my 5 years in Tallahassee, I earned both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in history. If there was a certificate for travel experience, I'd have earned that too.
The focus of my Master's degree was the post-Reconstruction era in America. I wrote my thesis on Booker T. Washington and his work to educate African Americans in the South at the dawn of the 20th century. I was also working part-time at a non-profit organization focused on education policy reform.
After graduation, I joined Teach for America. TFA places high-performing college grads as teachers in low-income public schools around the country. I was assigned to teach world history in a St. Louis high school. Although I had made a 2-year commitment, I was only in the classroom for a couple of months.
The morning that changed my life
It's cliche to say this, but any given day could be your last on Earth. In late September 2012, my last day nearly came. I was driving from St. Louis to Florida - a long haul to pick up my cat and catch a Florida State football game.
At around 5 a.m., I began to experience some chest pain and called my mom. The call dropped a minute later, and I didn't wake up for more than a month.
When I arrived at the hospital - Grady Memorial in Atlanta, Georgia, the doctors and nurses sprung into action immediately. Having sustained 3rd and 4th degree burns to 40% of my body, I was not expected to survive. A coma was induced in an effort to stabilize me, and doctors weren't sure about the severity of my brain injury (it was just a severe concussion).
When I was brought out of the coma, I was left disoriented for days and had no recollection of the accident. To this day, I have no memory of the crash. While the circumstances surrounding the accident were never fully determined, the theory is that it was an adverse reaction to a 5 Hour Energy drink I had consumed two hours prior. That drink has been investigated by the FDA for its potential role in 13 deaths and 92 dangerous reactions. An investigation of the scene was conducted, and police determined that I had been unconscious until after the vehicle came to a stop (no braking had occurred). Interstate 75 was shut down for more than 3 hours as a result.
The burn injuries I sustained ultimately led to the amputation of both legs below the knee and my right hand. I have had 39 surgeries to date, and will require more in the future.
Nature of my disability
The medical team at Grady Memorial Hospital were the hands of God. Their tireless effort made it possible for me to live, and I will be forever grateful. I also owe many thanks to my family, friends and church community for their prayers and support. Without the love of so many, I would not be here today.
Although my last surgery took place in 2014, I still have a significant disability. As a triple amputee, I must rely on a power wheelchair for mobility. Due to the nature of my burn injuries, walking with prosthetics is a long shot that will require multiple surgeries. As of now, I've not found the courage to make a go of it.
While I was in a coma, I sustained pressure sores on my backside due to a lack of movement and relief. Pressure sores are incredibly dangerous, and pose issues with pain and skin breakdown long after they have healed. As such, I do everything possible to limit my time in the seated position and take every opportunity for pressure relief. My doctors have told me repeatedly that I should spend more time out of my wheelchair than in it, and this is a recommendation I have observed almost religiously.
As an amputee, phantom limb pain is a sensation that I must contend with. Although my legs and hand were amputated, many of the muscles and nerves which controlled them remain. As a result, I feel all of my fingers and toes, even though they have been gone for years. Sharp pains frequently occur in these areas, and I have no way to gain relief (except through drugs, which I have disavowed). I can't massage a foot that doesn't exist!
Finally, having only one complete arm and hand places an undue burden on that limb, because it is used for everything. I didn't have carpal tunnel before, but I do now. Attempting to move my entire body with that arm has caused me a significant amount of discomfort, and I've sprained my wrist on more than one occasion. Cracking noises are never a good sound!
I share these things to help you better compare your own disability experience with mine. This should allow you to better judge what types of accommodations you will require when traveling to the places I write about.
From the hospital to the airport
I attended Florida State University at a time when our football team was... lackluster. After I graduated for the second (and final) time, I promised myself that I would attend the national championship game if they ever made it.
In January 2014, they made it. My family and doctors had long told me that my travel days were over, but I was determined to give it a go. My legs had been amputated only six weeks prior to the game. Still bandaged and with open wounds, I traveled across the country with my sister. The 'Noles defeated Auburn University at the Rose Bowl, and claimed the crystal ball.
Little did I know how significant that team's accomplishment would be to the course of my disability life. The travel bug was back, and I attribute everything that has followed to those few days in Pasadena, California.
My wheelchair accessible travel life
Once I discovered that traveling with a disability is possible, I rolled gently into a few more trips. Next up was Washington, D.C., then Atlanta, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Boston. I was jet-setting again, and it felt good.
Traveling was difficult and tiresome (it still is), but three things made me stick with it.
1. Accessible experiences exist everywhere
The majority of disabilities occur unexpectedly or as a result of age. Since I had lived a very active youth free of disability, adapting to my new mobility impairment was difficult. I had so much to learn! When it became clear that I was going be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I truly thought that I would live as a prisoner in my own home. But the world has presented me with far more opportunities than barriers, and I have delighted in sharing them here.
In spite of the accessibility nightmares that exist in air travel, I'm still an aviation geek. I loved soaking in the wonder of flight on the inaugural flight of KLM's Boeing 787. In Cambodia, I visited a wildlife refuge and played with elephants. And in Las Vegas, I flew like Superman over Fremont Street on the SlotZilla Zoomline. All of these activities were open and accessible to me.
2. Travel maintains (and creates) friendships
I have always been a social person, but my disability jeopardized my ability to maintain friendships. Facebook is a great thing (most of the time), but it isn't the same as a face-to-face personal interaction. I had left Florida after college, and most of my friends had too. My disability and the frequent hospital admissions kept me at a distance from my friends, and I longed to be back with them. As I began to travel, seeing friends was a top priority that really helped me overcome the mental struggles of my new life.
I've been able to stage meet-ups with my friends all over the world - Amsterdam, Boston, Hong Kong, Moscow, Tokyo and Seattle are just a few examples. I was also able to join in celebrating my sister's college graduation with a trip to Europe. Our European tour showed the both of us just how far I have come in my healing since that first trip to the Rose Bowl.
In addition to spending time with old friends, I've also made many new ones - people I met in airport lounges, on flights, at the hotel bar or on the streets of the cities I visited. Some of those people have become close friends - relationships I plan to cherish for the rest of my life. The ability to travel has reconnected me with my social butterfly spirit and made me a happier person.
I've also had many chance meetings, like the two pictured above. The meeting in the photo to the left (top if reading on a smartphone) took place in Moscow, Russia. I wrote about that encounter here. The second photo was taken on a nighttime sightseeing cruise in Dubai. On that boat ride, I met Talib, who was visiting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I write about that meeting here.
3. The world is beautiful and diverse
If you watch the news, you'd assume that the world is crumbling. But the world is just as beautiful as it always was. There are a few bad actors who aim to hurt us, but those types have existed since the dawn of time. I live my life with the belief that the vast majority of people are good.
Thinking beyond the goodness of humanity, there are many other examples of wonder on this planet we call Earth. Whether it is the perfection of sport in a baseball game, incredible towers like the Burj Khalifa, or breathtaking cathedrals like St. Basil's - more beauty exists than we can consume in a lifetime. But travel has allowed me to see and take part in so much of that beauty. Travel can open the world to you as well.
I want to Open Your World (and mine)
I traveled for more than a year before launching WheelchairTravel.org. This website was initially envisioned as a place where I could share a few tips from my vacations. I hoped to reach a person or two, but it has grown into a diverse community of readers and guest writers from every corner of the world.
When I learned that more than 1% of the world's population relies on a wheelchair to aid in their mobility, I wondered why more of us weren't traveling. The answer is simple: inclusion through the creation of universally accessible environments is not a priority. The issue lies not only in our governments that fail to enforce civil rights laws, but also in the businesses that fail to observe them.
This website is about travel, but I also throw in a bit of my disability advocacy. I praise businesses that serve everyone equally, criticize those that do not, and defend them against unfair criticism. It is my hope that business leaders will act on my call to create accessibility for all. But my most important work is educating readers about what to expect when traveling with a mobility impairment.
Wheelchair users know that the online resources for wheelchair accessible travel are limited and typically unreliable. With this site, I aim to disrupt the unacceptable status quo. I write only about the places I have visited and the experiences I have had from the seat of my wheelchair. If I cannot be confident in the accuracy of information, I will not publish it. I am committed to providing my readers with the tools to access the world independently or with friends/family.
Together, we can be partners in forging a path forward for our disabled peers and the people who join our community every day. Prove your friends, family and doctors wrong - get out there and see the world!
If you'd like to join in on my accessible travel journey, follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates! Have questions? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do my best to respond with answers!