My longtime friend Francisco Gonzalez — CEO of Fearless Journeys and a visiting professor at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City — recently shared a link to a podcast where he discussed his new book, The American Dream Is A Terrible Thing To Waste: 100 Agents Of Innovation Share Their Fearless Journeys In Today’s Economy. I’m one of the “agents of innovation” profiled in the book, and he gave me a shout out on the podcast.
The podcast was engaging and left me thinking about a few things related to my accessible travel journey, namely what inspires me to travel, the fear of the unknown, and the stories we all have to share.
The 10-year anniversary of my car accident was this past September — many in the disability community refer to such anniversaries as their “life day,” though I’ve never considered mine to be of any particular importance. I have no memory of the crash and remained in an induced coma for more than a month thereafter.
The car accident obviously altered the course of my life in a profound way. The world that had been my playground became significantly less accessible to me. Since my first long-distance trip as a wheelchair user in January 2014, I have been focused on breaking down the barriers to equal access in the travel industry, with the goal of bringing the same freedom of movement enjoyed by nondisabled people to the disability community.
As the late Anthony Bourdain said, “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” These words speak to an important truth, that the opportunity for mobility and discovery should be accessible to us all.
Our motivations for travel vary, but no reason is unimportant.
Why do human beings travel? In the modern age, the top reasons likely include reconnecting with family, enjoying a well-deserved vacation, and work. Some might say that the relative importance of those trips varies — perhaps a trip to a family member’s funeral is more important than another’s spring break getaway? It’s a debate that should not be had, because doing so would ignore the complexity of the human condition.
My first long-distance trip as a wheelchair user — to watch my Florida State Seminoles play in the college football national championship game — doesn’t appear to be of any particular importance. I could have watched the game on television. Are sports really important?
To focus solely on the obvious purpose of my trip (to support my alma mater in a big game) misses what was truly important: an opportunity to reclaim my independence, to test the boundaries of my physical ability, to experience joy for the first time in months, and to rediscover a reason to hope after a long and oftentimes depressing medical struggle. My trip to a college football game was all of that and more, so yes — it was a very important trip.
Had I not taken that trip to California, I have no idea what my life would look like today. The chain of events that led to the creation of this website might not have come to pass, and the countless stories of readers like you who have used it as a resource to travel accessibly — for hundreds, if not thousands of unique purposes — may never have materialized. Each trip we take is important, because it is driven by individual needs and desires that are unique to each of us, and to each of our journeys.
“It takes a village” — We have a responsibility to help others overcome the barriers to travel.
I registered the WheelchairTravel.org domain name on September 30, 2014, but I was inspired to create this website much earlier — during my visit to the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City in April of that same year. Planning my first trip to China was difficult due to limited information on wheelchair accessibility in Beijing, China. I couldn’t be sure of what to expect, but took the trip anyway — I was living on little more than a hope and a prayer that things would work out.
As I explored Beijing and fell in love with the city, I developed a desire to share it with others. Overcoming my fear of the unknown, and in turn experiencing a transformative journey, is what inspired me to create this website — a place to share what I had learned for the benefit of others in the disability community.
Although I never imagined that this website would grow to even a fraction of its current size, or reach even 1% of the people who now read it, I delight in its journey from (very) humble beginnings. The foundation on which this website rests is a principle that I was taught as a child — that sharing is the right thing to do. Progress can only be achieved through the sharing of knowledge and information and I believe that when we share our resources with one another, we create a more vibrant world where opportunity abounds.
In a world that has not yet embraced the principles of universal design, accessibility often requires the assistance of others. While I am often frustrated at the need to ask for assistance that could be eliminated through accessible design (such as boarding an airplane in an aisle chair), I am grateful for it nonetheless. Few things in the modern world are possible alone — we all depend on the contributions of others, whether we have a disability or not.
On the first trip to China, very early in my accessible travel journey, I was taught an important lesson about the need for assistance and the importance of freely offering it. After a long day of exploration, I found myself stuck — my power wheelchair’s battery had died a few blocks from my hotel. I called out to passersby, asking if they spoke English and, after what seemed like an eternity, a Malaysian businessman responded, turned his focus to me, and pushed me back to my hotel. His willingness to sacrifice his time and energy to help a stranger filled me with gratitude and a realization that we are all connected — we are called to be the Good Samaritan from time to time, and it is our duty to respond affirmatively, to be the safety net for our fellow man.
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The fruits of travel and exploration are the stories found in human fraternity.
Prior to my disability, as a 20-something graduate student at Florida State University, I spent many weekends out of town — traveling to faraway places, sometimes for only a few hours, on what the community of frequent flyers called “mileage runs.” At the time, many of my friends judged me — they didn’t share my passion for flying, and couldn’t understand why someone would travel for hours on end only to spend a few hours or a few days in a destination so far from home.
What they didn’t understand was that those trips were not only an opportunity to enjoy my favorite hobby — flying — but they were a chance to engage with others while exploring new destinations and communities. I found (and still find!) tremendous joy in connecting with people, whether they are airline employees, passengers, tour guides, bartenders, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, homeless people, or anyone else.
No matter what is going on in my life, whether I am in a good mood or not, I will never ignore someone who says hello. Their hello is a gift, a sign of respect, and a recognition of my existence!
Earlier this year, I shared a story about a wildly impromptu trip to Frankfurt, Germany — that adventure started with a comment from a complete stranger about my wheelchair — an awkward introduction that many disabled people turn away from and deride. I’m not caught up in that thinking — I see every awkward comment as an invitation to engage, and I never turn down those invitations! My reward was an incredible adventure, an unbelievable story few can match and, most importantly, a new friend!
Whether you are traveling to a faraway place or to the coffee shop down the street, you are traveling, and the potential for human connection exists with each trip we take. Take advantage of those opportunities to respond to a “hello” or to introduce yourself with a “hello!” You’ll become part of the beautiful chorus that is our human fraternity — the true reason I get out of bed in the morning.
In the April 27, 2023 edition of the Wheelchair Travel Newsletter, I shared that I am writing a book — it will document some of the key moments and unique stories that have defined the first decade of my accessible travel journey. You can show your support for this website, my advocacy, and my goal of becoming a published author by subscribing or upgrading to the paid newsletter for less than a quarter a day. Thank you, as always, for your readership and support!