This July marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act being signed into law, barring the discrimination of people with disabilities, requiring employers’ accommodation of employees with disabilities, and requiring the accessibility of public spaces (ADA.gov). The latter in particular opened a new world of travel opportunities across the US for people with disabilities as public transportation, buildings, parks, accommodations and other public areas were required to be accessible to all. Today, traveling and staying active is much easier for the 12.1% of the population in the US with a disability, or more than 39.5 million people (disabilitystatistics.org), than it was two decades ago and it still is in many other places in the world.
But what about traveling internationally and studying abroad? What about private programs and events in the US? While significant advancements have been made, many people with disabilities still face obstacles in living active lives and experiencing all the world has to offer. One of the biggest barriers is the lack of laws similar to the ADA in other countries. Another is architectural preservation in areas rich with historical attractions and infrastructures where renovations have to pass rigid codes and face local opposition, as well as countries where paratransport is not required by law and hard to find. Locals learn by trial and error what’s accessible, what’s not, and where to go for their specific needs when specialized facilities and providers aren’t readily available, but access to information like this for travelers is lacking.
Thankfully, disability awareness is on the rise in many places. Political organizations, like the UN and the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union,) and advocacy or research groups that influence policy-making, like the Australian Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre, are dedicating more resources to tackling the accessibility void from the government level. This is in part a result of the growing accessible tourism market driven significantly by the growing senior populations in developed countries–groups with the financial means, time and desire to travel. Travel bureaus and networks like the European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) recognize the growing need–and market opportunity–to accommodate these groups and are working with government groups to influence change across infrastructures and facilities, services, adapted equipment and access to information.
Still, unknotting bureaucratic red tape and advancing systems in these areas to make many destinations truly disability friendly will take time and effort, even for their own residents. This leaves the door open for private organizations to spark progress from the ground up by working directly with travelers and non travelers, destinations and businesses and by providing needed resources with the help of donors and volunteers. Organizations across the globe have taken up the challenge and are attacking it from different angles to support people with disabilities who want to get active and explore, whether at home or traveling. Diversability, Bridge II Sports and Achilles International are three of those organizations.
Diversability is one organization working to raise awareness and reshape the conceptions of ability. At the age of 9, Tiffany Yu permanently lost the use of her right arm in a car accident. More than 10 years later as a student at Georgetown University, she noticed disability was missing in the conversation about diversity, prompting her to found Diversability. The student organization became officially recognized by the university’s Student Activities Commission more than a year later, received the Reimagine Georgetown Grant in its first year, and grew to almost 400 members, multiple annual events and ongoing awareness campaigns.
After Diversability continued to grow and gain recognition beyond campus borders, Tiffany decided to relaunch the organization and foster awareness and conversation through events. Today, the organization is powered by a small core group of volunteers and a growing global ambassador network. “Diversability has a great online presence thanks to some amazing volunteers like Jason Lee and our ambassador program to help spread the word, but our main programming at the moment is through events,” Tiffany said. “The world is so interconnected today through the power of social media, but there is still something really valuable about being able to connect and share stories with someone in person.”
Diversability: An Evening Celebrating Diversity + Disability will take place in NYC on April 16, 2015 and include a panel discussion featuring White House Champion of Change and Ms. Wheelchair America 2011 Alex McArthur, TEDx speaker and South Shore Stars 40 Under 40 winner Becky Curran, and jazz pianist Matt Savage. The event will accommodate 70 in-person guests, and an unlimited number of viewers worldwide can tune in to the free online streaming. Proceeds raised from the event will benefit the Disability Equality Index, the disability inclusion benchmarking tool for businesses.
Tiffany realizes the power this conversation and awareness can have on travel, specifically. “According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability. That’s a lot of people!” She said. “That’s more than a billion people who may want to travel and support economies through tourism. That’s more than a billion people who may want to travel well and be well through personal fitness. If we truly want progress, we need to strive for inclusion as much as we can.”
Bridge II Sports
Durham, NC-based nonprofit Bridge II Sports is tackling the accessibility problem from a different angle. Its mission is to help children and adults with physical disabilities and challenges discover and build their confidence, self-esteem, and tenacity through sports–traits that empower athletes in all areas of their lives to become more independent and find the skills and strength to navigate life in a world designed for able bodies. BIIS’s founder, Ashley Thomas, knows the value of such strength and determination first hand. Ashley has Spina Bifida, the incomplete closing of the spinal column which causes chronic pain and the need for a wheelchair. She regained hope and self-esteem through sports, especially kayaking, and later became a competitive National Parakayak team member.
Ashley realized the need for an organization that allows children and adults to participate in competitive sports after volunteering at a clinic for people with Spina Bifida. “I met many children who were just like me but had no goals or purpose in life,” she said. “Often times when a child is born with disability, the medical model preps parents and loved ones to have no expectation of a positive or productive outcome. This subtly gets set in the minds and becomes the boundary many children live with.”
“I wanted to change that,” Ashley said. “As a person born with Spina Bifida, there is some truth to the challenge, but, there are a lot more abilities if we adapt the way we play, set goals, and expect that one is capable.” After researching adaptive sports programs in the US, she launched BIIS in 2007 without any equipment, space or participants. Today, BIIS has a $500,000 budget, the most adapted sports equipment in the state, hosts an event in collaboration with Veterans Affairs, does educational programs with major universities, hosts five major events, offers 14 adapted sports programs, works with policy change at the NC state capital and more.
“Physical activity and recreation are key to healthy living,” Ashley said. BIIS programs teach adaptive ways to stay active and improve fitness, such as through the use of Rubberbanditz products which allow athletes to stretch and strengthen compromised body parts that they otherwise couldn’t. Through physical activity and sports, BIIS programs also teach their younger participants valuable life skills, like goal setting and accountability, including earning good grades at school. “There are so many systems to enable people,” Ashley said. “Disability isn’t easy, but neither is life.” By holding their athletes to high standards on and off the court and showing them and their parents their true capabilities, BIIS gives its participants the power and freedom to venture out of their comfort zones–physically, mentally and geographically–and have a full life. The proof is evident: All 20 graduates of their programs went to college or technical schools.
Similar tenacity is instilled in their adult veteran athletes who have suffered debilitating injuries in combat. One of BIIS’s biggest events is one created specifically for veterans: the Valor Games Southeast May 18-21, 2015 at venues across the NC Triangle area where 100 military athletes will compete in ten different adaptive events from air rifle to powerlifting to cycling. “Our goal of Valor Games Southeast is to engage our military family now living with disability to build up the mind, heart, and body through adapted sports,” Ashley said.
Through the Valor Games and all adapted sports programs, Ashley and Bridge II Sports are making not just competitive sports but the entire world more accessible to those with different abilities from the inside out. “Showing disability doesn’t determine your outcome,” Ashley stresses. It’s about how we react to the challenge, she said. “Don’t let if defeat you.”
In 1976, Dick Traum became the first amputee to complete the NYC Marathon. The accomplishment brought pride and renewed self-esteem, leading him to form the Achilles Track Club seven years later to provide the same opportunity to others with disabilities. Through the club, six members also completed the marathon within the club’s first year. From there, the organization opened chapters across the US and around the world, started hosting events, expanded to different sports, added specialized programs for children and veterans, and even influenced the NYC Marathon to become the first mainstream marathon to allow hand crank wheelchairs.
Today, 23 Achilles chapters operate in the US with 53 others internationally, and at any one time, around 3,000 member athletes and kids are experiencing the world in a new way through distance running, hand cycling, triathlons and other competitive events. Every member who applies is accepted, all programs are run by volunteers, and athletes have all of their costs covered by donations. Efficiently using every dollar donated and harnessing the power of volunteers to support every athlete that joins a program has earned Achilles 4 stars on Charity Navigator, the highest rating a non-profit can receive.
Achilles fosters a supportive community atmosphere and spirit of competition in all of their programs to help their athletes realize their true capabilities, and the results show. In their adaptive school programs, children complete virtual marathons and many are entered into mainstream 4k and 5k races. In their adult programs, roughly 20% complete marathons. Every year, Achilles enters 275 athletes and 300 guides in the ING NYC Marathon alone. But their growth and impact isn’t over.
“We always want to expand in all directions,” said Sarah Green, Events Marketing Manager at Achilles. “We always want to help more athletes, enter more athletes in more races and longer distances, get more volunteers, add chapters, improve the performance of our existing athletes, [and] extend the hand cycle fleet.” One of Achilles’ biggest challenges is accommodating the high demand for their programs, she added. “There are always new people.”
Although donations are always helpful, one of the best ways to help Achilles athletes, Sarah said, is to compete alongside them to the best of your abilities. “Our member athletes love competition.”
Supporting organizations like these is just one of many ways you can help make the world more accessible for all. No matter where you are, you can be an advocate. Take note of restaurants, tourist attractions and other businesses lacking ramps, braille, wheelchair-friendly tables, and other needed amenities, then ask management to consider implementing them. Report blatant discrimination to authorities if witnessed–in the US, you can lodge an ADA compliance complaint with the Department of Justice. In locations where accessible transport is limited or unavailable, offer to help mobility challenged travelers in assisting them to a seat, making room for any equipment or gear, and helping them get in and out of the transport safely.
And if you know someone who faces accessibility challenges but wants to see the world, you can always simply share information and help him or her plan a trip. Needed information can be a challenge to find, especially for international destinations, but there is a growing online community and database to make accessible travel a reality for many. See the list below for a great place to start.
Resources on Travel Accessibility:
Mobility International USA, works to advance disability rights internationally and helps arrange study, intern, and volunteer abroad exchanges
Curb Free with Cory Lee, a travel blog exploring the world from a wheelchair user’s perspective
Wheelchair Traveling, resources for traveling with wheelchairs, including destinations, transportation, accommodations, rentals and other information
Lonely Planet’s Travel for All Google + Community
Emerging Horizons, travel resources for wheelchair users and slow walkers
Special Needs Group / Special Needs at Sea, fulfills special needs equipment requirements for travel and certifies travel agents in specialized accessible travel planning
European Network of Accessible Tourism’s Accessible Cities List