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Ryan Neiswender: I’m not your inspiration, I’m your motivation
By Alicia Williams

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Paralympic gold medalist, corporate keynote speaker and life coach

Who is Ryan? How would you describe yourself?

Ryan is just someone who wants to maximize his life. I fell in love with sport and the freedom of mobility through a wheelchair and it’s taken me all over the world. I recognized pretty early that I had a talent and if I put the time in, I could maximize that into opportunities to be able to play professionally, to be a Paralympian and go to the Paralympic Games, to go to college and to get an education. I think if we’re humble enough to prepare and we’re confident enough to perform, the possibilities are endless. So, I’m someone who loves adventure. I’ve done skydiving and love the thrill of adventure, of just seeing the world from above. I just actually got back recently from a scuba diving trip in the Cayman Islands where we taught disabled people how to scuba dive and get them certified.

I want to make a change for good. I’m always excited to explore new things and do it in a lot of different areas. And through corporate keynotes, I love to use the knowledge that I’ve learned from the vast experiences that I’ve gained to help people, teams and organizations reach their untapped potential.

I love to explore and to see what’s out there. I love to learn, but then I love to reflect and really pull out the key nuggets that I think can help other people on their journey.

What one thing has helped you along your journey?

I think one of the things that’s really helped me along my journey is the question: is that an expansive thought or a constricting thought? I can look out at the water and I can see it’s expansive, it’s open, it’s freeing. But if you’ve had a really bad experience with water, you would look at water and say that feels constricting.  I do believe in slowly but surely overcoming fears. We can’t fill our life with fear-based things. We need to be able to look at life and say, “For me, that’s expansive. What I see with my two eyes may be different than yours. And that’s why life is beautiful because we’re different people with different passions.

“The world won’t always adapt to us,” you say. Share your thoughts about this

I’m part of an organization called Stay-Focused, a nonprofit that has certified over 140 plus disabled people in scuba diving over the last 20 years. They raise funds and have all expenses paid for the people with disabilities to go down to Cayman Islands, have a week there and get certified in scuba diving. I did it in 2008 and then I became a mentor and got involved a little bit more from a leadership perspective with the organization. What we do is actually quite amazing, for example on the most recent trip there was someone who previously had a stroke and half of her body didn’t really function properly. When you’re underwater doing certifications, nothing’s modified but like everyone else, she had to take her mask off, put her mask back on and clear the mask all with one hand. It’s hard to do that with two hands and she had the use of only one. I remember hearing her story that she sat for five to six hours and just practiced that skill over and over again and never wanted to quit. There’s a lesson in there, the world’s not always going to adapt to us people with disabilities. In her case, she had a disability, but she was floating underwater and doing what’s necessary to get certified just like anybody else.

How accessible is the Cayman Islands for scuba divers with disabilities?

We went there to scuba dive, but every beach is not wheelchair-friendly and wheelchair-accessible. I think it depends on, first, what hotel you’re at. I was at the Ritz Carlton, and they had some beach wheelchairs. I got on that. Then someone carried my chair onto the boat. I then transferred to my chair, and I was good. The biggest thing with adaptive scuba diving is just communicating early what your needs are. It’s a very unique environment but there is opportunity. I would not say it’s 100% accessible. There are unique challenges with everything but there are ways to overcome them. For example, we had a guest there with very limited sight and someone was wearing a really bright pink shirt underwater so that there was something she could see. So, there’s always adaptations that you can make.

As a wheelchair user and a Paralympian, how has your personal experience influenced your perspective on travel?

I think one of the biggest things is that we’re not asking for special accommodation. We’re asking for equal accommodation. When I ask for what may be considered a ‘special’ accommodation while travelling, it makes me seem like I’m being extra, like I’m asking for something above and beyond what anybody is asking for. And when you look at it at its core, maybe that’s true, but if we look at it from the perspective that I’m just trying to experience and do and see everything that everybody else is seeing then it’s looks different.

The one thing about travelling throughout the world is that we realize lots of things were built a long time ago and they weren’t built with accessibility in mind. Recently, airlines pledged that they’re going to make accessible bathrooms within the next 10 years. In my opinion, that’s a very like ableist mindset. In one sense, that’s a win. In another sense, I’m like, why is it taking 10 years? Why do I have to wait that long to go to the bathroom? The people who are making the decision probably aren’t disabled so they don’t see or think of is as a big deal, that the person with the disability maybe has to pee in a water bottle because they can’t get to the restroom and use it comfortably.

As humans, we adapt to the environments that we are put in. For instance, if I lift weights, my muscles get stronger. Why? Because I put them in a different environment. But I don’t think we’re asking for anything crazy when we want more accessible accommodations. My wife, who is able-bodied, and myself can experience the same thing and I won’t have to go around the back to enter a building. I’ll walk through the front like she does. But overall, we adapt. I’ve been able to travel all over the world and see some incredible things. But the fact that when I hop on a plane, I’m not 100% sure that my chair is going to be there when I get out and that it’s going to all be in one piece is not a comfortable thought. But this has almost become normalized, which is pretty sad because people get mad when they lose their luggage. My wheelchair is my mode of transportation. That’s how I’m going to get around!

Do you usually seek out adaptive adventures when you travel? And if so, which ones are you usually attracted to the most?

I definitely enjoy things that involve exploration and adventure and so does my wife. We will be going to Park City soon. I looked up the National Ability Center and we can rent equipment so we’re going to ski. When we go to national parks, we look for the trails that are mostly accessible because I can get up and walk a little bit but I’m not going to climb over rocks and carry my chair miles to get to the next flattest place to be, so we definitely look at those things before and plan. I like skydiving and we actually did this on our honeymoon.

What are some benefits of adaptive activities that you have identified?

One of the things about adaptive sports and activities is that it opens up the eyes of the world to something they never thought a person with disabilities could do. Oftentimes, when someone sees someone with a disability, they see all the things that they can’t do. It’s not that we can’t do a lot of things. It’s that we just need the right equipment and it’s never been shown to us that that equipment exists. I love going on adventures, I love adaptive activities, and it’s helped me as a basketball player, as an individual and as a husband. When I want to do something, I no longer say like, I can’t do it. Instead, I think about what I would need to be able to do that because I know that it’s possible and that someone has probably done it before. So how do I figure that out? Research.

That’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned, and it’s impacted my life. Activities show opportunity and possibility, it doesn’t feel constrictive. It opens up the world and makes it feel very expansive.

Adaptive activities empower individuals with disabilities and help with their mental and emotional well-being.Number one – there are lots of factors that go into one physical activity and in general it helps stimulate our brain in ways that are good for our mental well-being. Number two – every person comes with their own background and you have no idea what they’ve been told they can and can’t do for so long and when the lid of possibilities is opened and they see what they can accomplish, it’s magnificent. Also, when you’re doing adaptive activities, you’re around people who are like you so there’s a sense of belonging, a sense of “they get me” more than anybody else.

What got you into advocacy?

For a long time, I tried to ignore my disability and just tried to be like everyone else. I just l wanted to fit in and not be different. But when we start to embrace the things that perhaps we hate about ourselves, on the other side of that is the fact there’s so much untapped potential because I spent so much time hiding the thing that I hated about myself rather than exploring all the things that could be on the other side of that. And I think, for me, what it allowed me to do is open up to see what other people needed to see for themselves and now it’s almost my obligation to educate others. I think I have been gifted with the ability to communicate and speak effectively. I have life experiences that position me to be a very great advocate for a population of people who are marginalized and under-represented. And for a world that isn’t really set up for us to be successful, we can still be successful. However, we have to understand that many times the answer we get from others may be no, but we just have to figure out how to do it, because we can.

At what point in your life did you come to that realization?

I think when we talk about mental health, anxiety, depression, we either try to ignore it or tolerate it. But neither are effective. We don’t have to love it, but when we accept and acknowledge it, it no longer holds the same impact on our lives. For myself, I think it was really in my college years. I got to a point where I said, this is silly. I’m just trying to prove to people that I can versus living in who I am. I do have a disability and I’m just going to go out and attack the opportunities in the world. We think about all the things that people are saying about us, right? I really believe that people, not just people with disabilities, have operated about 2/3 of their capacity and the other third they’re trying to hide things they hate about themselves rather than opening that up to see like what’s on the other side of that and figure how to attack new opportunities.

How do you view the notion of self-acceptance?

I think self-acceptance is definitely a major part of everything and it’s speaking the thoughts in our head, saying them out loud and seeing that they’re not as scary as they actually are. But self-acceptance is different than self-embracing. Acceptance is just accepting that I have a disability. Self-embracing is that I have to love my disability because there may be things about it that I don’t love. But I can’t argue that I have a disability, and once I accept that, then I’m no longer letting that just linger, I’ve moved past that. I’ve seen it, I know it, I’m going to move past it. I have self-acceptance of the situation, the person, the way I was born.

What about the power of outside influences?

We can only control ourselves and our emotions. What we each deal with might be different, but at its core, individuals with disabilities are not the only marginalized people that have ever walked this earth. The way we make changes is through education. It’s hilarious to me how many people walk up to me at the gym and just like tell me how inspiring I am that I’m at the gym today. Why should I be inspiring because I’m a Paralympian? You think I’m a gold medalist not because I decided to show up at the gym today but because I have a disability? I’m not your inspiration, I’m your motivation.

There’s a lot of good intent, for example, someone who sees me in a chair doesn’t think that I can open the door and so rushes from the back of the parking lot to open it for me, but I can open it myself and get through. And then I go in the grocery store and there’s a kid who says, “Mommy, why does he walk funny or why is he in a chair? And instead of educating their kid, they say, “stop that.” And why are they doing that? Because they weren’t educated about disabilities. So now if I’m not confident with myself I won’t want to go to the grocery store because every time I go, I’m seen like an alien walking through the aisles. So, we have to educate. We have to! I’m at the beach. There’s no walkway that goes all the way to the ocean. The only way for me to get there is to crawl. It makes you not want to go to the beach. Why? Because the system is not set up for me to succeed.

We’ve made so much progress, but we have so far to go. Advocacy is not about making you feel bad. It just makes you see the world through my eyes. I think when people see individuals with disabilities doing the same things that they are, especially when they have the proper equipment to be able to do those things, adaptive activities and adaptive sports can be a huge vehicle to change the course of what’s possible for people with disabilities and also to change how the world perceives us.

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