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American Renee Bruns tells us how she set a Guinness World Record for the most countries visited by a person in a wheelchair in a year.
A.f.A. : Tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today?
Renee: I was born with an undiagnosed skeletal disorder and started using a wheelchair full-time at the age of seven. Because of my disability, I started traveling around the country to see specialists when I was a young girl. Seeing different parts of the U. S. sparked an interest in traveling and when I was in the third grade, I expressed to my mom that I hoped to see all 50 states someday. We started taking family vacations each summer and would visit new states each year. By the time I was 16, my family and I had been to all 50 states.
In my early 20s, I started traveling internationally and quickly made it my goal to see all 195 U.N. member nations. In May 2022, I left my executive role at a Fortune 500 insurance agency to spend one year traveling full-time. I am coming up on my one-year anniversary and finishing my sabbatical year. At this point, I’ve been to 117 countries and all 7 continents (plus the 50 states). I’m not done traveling and still hope to get to all 195 countries, but I will be slowing it down a bit so I can launch the next chapter of my life.
A.f.A.: Congratulations on winning a Guinness World Record for the most countries visited in one year by a person in a wheelchair. What was this experience like and what has it taught you about yourself and your life goals?
Renee: When I set out to see the world in May 2022, my ultimate goal was not necessarily the Guinness World Record. I really wanted to experience the people around the world and gain a better understanding of how we are all connected. A few weeks before I left, I sent a very casual inquiry to Guinness to see if they had any sort of a record I could break, knowing that it was unlikely that there were many disabled travelers doing what I was doing. We exchanged a few messages and the record I recently received was what we settled on: most countries traveled to in one year with a wheelchair. I had a bucket list and on it was, get a Guinness World Record. It’s always been a very broad statement with no specific details on what the record would be, when I would get it, or how I would begin it. For me, receiving the record was one of the most monumental moments in my life. While it was a personal achievement, in many ways it gave me the chance to prove to others with limitations and challenges that outlandish goals are possible. There were many times in the past year that I told myself, “Stay the course. Do not give up.” Even when I was feeling defeated or struggling, I kept powering through. I know now that I can do anything I put my mind to, and with hard work and dedication, the rewards at the end of that often-difficult journey are more impactful than I could have ever imagined.
A.f.A.: Your professional career began as an insurance executive. What encouraged you to leave your position for a year-long sabbatical to travel the world? What was your goal? What advice do you have for others thinking of doing this?
Renee: I had always wanted to take a year off work to travel the world. I had been saving for a trip like this for many, many years. We were coming out of a pandemic, and I was feeling very burnt out. I knew my performance at work would start to suffer soon and I knew I needed a change. I talked with my loved ones at length, and we decided this was the year for me to travel and redefine my future. While they did not travel with me, my family and friends were incredibly supportive and would meet me for a week or two along the way. My goal for the sabbatical was, of course, to travel and experience the world. But more importantly, I wanted time to reevaluate what the rest of my life and my career would look like. I was also struggling with my own inner demons and the struggles that come with living as a disabled woman. I needed to see that there were people in this world who could look past my wheelchair.
Once I got out into the world, completely alone, I found some of the most amazing human beings that I’ve ever met. My views of humanity have been refreshed and I am so much more confident with my disability, my future career, and who I am as a person. My advice for anyone who is considering this is to put together a plan to do it. That can include everything from planning financially to discussing it with your family and friends, to working with your employer (if they are open to you taking time off), to thinking about places that are accessible and what needs you will have in those places. Every step of the way will be incredibly scary—you can’t escape that—but let yourself feel the fear and fight through it. We all deserve to have a better understanding of who we are so we can truly live our lives authentically. Society has a way of expressing what is and isn’t acceptable, and as someone with a disability, it is even more uncommon to live this lifestyle. I am a big believer in making impossible dreams a reality. We all deserve to follow our passions.
A.f.A.: You have experienced some amazing adventures during your travels. Of them, what is your most proud accomplishment to date?
Renee: One of my most favorite travel memories is when I visited Machu Picchu, Peru. It’s absolutely not accessible and I knew it would be difficult physically and emotionally. I often get so frustrated when I cannot see landmarks and monuments, or sometimes even use restrooms in other countries, that I break down in tears full of anger and sadness. I knew this was a possibility when I went to Peru. My sister, Julie, and life partner, Tony, were traveling with me and they were more determined than me that we would all get to see Machu Picchu. For much of the tour, my sister carried me on her back. The entire staff at the site smiled and encouraged us to keep going, to see all the sites that we could. It was a beautiful place but more than anything, it was empowering to know that with the right people and the right mindset, we can do anything.
A.f.A.: Of all the countries, locales and venues you experienced, what place would you recommend as a must-see for other travelers with disabilities?
Renee: The Nordic countries in Europe (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) are incredibly accessible and welcoming of disabled travelers. They are beautiful countries with amazing people and some fun culture too. I encourage just exploring the different cities on your own, stopping at museums, local restaurants, pubs, and chatting with the people. That is my favorite way to travel—meeting local people and wandering around aimlessly.
A.f.A.: What’s next for you?
Renee: I am in the midst of launching a coaching and consulting business to help others aspire to follow their dreams and live authentically. There is a lot of work to be done in the disability travel space as well and I will continue to be an advocate for all things in this arena. More can be found on my webpage at reneebruns.net as I start to build out this new chapter in my life.
A.f.A.: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Renee: Every single dream you have is achievable. So many people are going to tell you that it’s not possible and you need to ignore those people. Only you can know what is possible for you.
A.f.A.: What message would you like to share with the world about the importance of inclusivity and the power of blogging to unite people?
Renee: I’m a big believer that we all have a powerful story to be shared. I know that everyone has their struggles. Many of my struggles (like so many others) are visibly shared with the world, but there are others who are struggling with invisible disabilities too. For me, writing my experiences in words has allowed me to express a part of me that is more difficult to share vocally. I hope that my story and my words resonate with my readers, and I encourage everyone who wants to share their story to do so. The community that comes from story sharing is a wonderful place, and the self-discovery that comes from writing is so different from any other form of self-discovery. I also believe that sharing deeper parts of our experiences as disabled people allows others to see into a part of our world that isn’t available by interacting in person.