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A.J. Can you tell us about your background, and your roles as a professional speaker and volunteer disability rights advocate?
I sustained a T6 complete spinal cord injury as a result of a serious car crash at the age of 25. I’m 49, so I’m almost to the point of 25 years walking, 25 rolling! A couple years after the crash, as a full-time wheelchair user, I started speaking up when things weren’t accessible. I learned more and more about the ADA and served on the board of my local Center for Independent Living. I told the CEO that I’d never been discriminated against, and he explained that when there’s a step to enter a business, the business is discriminating against me. That kind of stuck. Over the years, I ended up filing dozens of ADA (Title III) lawsuits in several states. As a result, lots of accessibility-related changes were made. I also advocated by speaking to business owners; there often wasn’t a lawsuit involved. Just for the purpose of learning, I got certified as an ADA Coordinator (and have kept up that certification). I received a master’s degree in disability studies. As an army spouse, I advocated and helped get some army bases more accessible. Nowadays, random people reach out to me for help with their questions pertaining to U.S. disability rights legislation. People also ask me questions about accessible travel. I’ve visited 49 countries on six continents (going to # 50 this month), so I will meet my goal of 50 by 50.
My first job after I became a wheelchair user was as a corporate travel agent. That’s what I did for the first nine years. Simultaneously, I started speaking for the Think First Foundation, which is a brain and spinal cord injury prevention organization, at local schools about injury prevention (in the Kansas City area). I did that for five years. Then, I moved to North Carolina and married an army officer. He got me started doing safety briefings for the military (on a volunteer basis from 2005-09). I was still a travel agent then, and in 2009, the military insisted on paying me. After nine years, I left my job as a travel agent and started speaking professionally for the military from 2009-2015. Then my husband got stationed in Germany and we lived there from 2015-2018, where I got 34 of the countries in. We relocated back to the Kansas City area in 2018; we’re currently building a house there. I speak about disability awareness, disability law and policy, and accessible travel. Those are the topics that I’m most passionate about. However, everyone wants to pay me well to do safety/injury prevention, so I end up doing that often. I spoke at West Point, N.Y. to thousands of cadets on Friday. I’m also currently wrapping up a master’s degree in psychology.
A.J. What kinds of adaptive activities have you found to be most enjoyable and empowering?
Adapted surfing in Costa Rica was one of my favorites, as well as paragliding in Switzerland. I also enjoyed tandem skydiving. Riding a camel in the Sahara desert in Morocco was a BIGGIE, but a little scary at first! I love hot springs and have enjoyed those in Iceland, Costa Rica and, recently, Chile. I find that whenever I’m in the air or in water, I don’t feel physically limited at all. It’s like the spinal cord injury disappears momentarily. Also, one of my travel joys is interacting, ethically, with animals. It’s a natural high for me.
A. J. How has your participation in adaptive activities impacted your mental and emotional well-being, if at all?
It definitely affects my mental health and emotional well-being in positive ways. Often, these activities cause me to have a natural high and feel happy. They provide a refreshing break from the architectural (and perhaps) attitudinal barriers of society.
A.J. Can you talk about a particularly difficult adaptive adventure you undertook?
The camel ride in Morocco (on an adaptive saddle) was one of my favorite adaptive activities, but it was scary because there was nothing to hold on to in front of me. My balance isn’t good enough to not have something to hold on to when up that high and moving. I was the first one to ever use the saddle, so hopefully, they’ve tweaked the design a bit since then (2018).
A.J. Tell us about your experience adaptive paragliding in Switzerland.
I loved every minute! Like I said, I feel free in the air, unlimited. The company, Paragliding Interlaken, was great to work with and said they often have wheelchair users paraglide.In our next issue, Kelly unpacks the rights that every wheelchair user needs to know about air travel. Stay tuned.