The weekend before last I attended the No Barriers Summit in Telluride Colorado. I went because the intersection of outdoorsy dirtball and physically disabled is tiny and remote and I was curious to see who else lives there. I went because I wanted to try out adaptive technologies that might make my adventures a bit more epic, or sustainable, or personally driven rather than group dependent. I went because I learned about the organization a week after the last Summit in 2011 and I’ve been internet stalking them ever since. I went because Colorado is supposed to be beautiful and I’ve been stuck at home nursing lame ankles, pity-partying and raring to travel since January. I went because I figured there might be dreamy mountain men and I have a growing weakness for dreamy mountain men. Essentially, my reasons for going were selfish and even a tad lady-broish. I went to conquer the mountain through adventure and partying. I went as a taker.
When I travel I try to leave home with an opened mind and my hopes low. If you travel with no expectations the world tends to exceed them. This time I left and thought, ‘this will be the most fun and amazing weekend of my adult life so far.’ So, my hopes were stratospherically higher than usual. To my amazement, at the summit, they were exceeded.
I didn’t think it completely through, but I’ve been to enough disabled events in my life to have brought the expectation that I would see disabled people trying things that able bodied people had decided would be just the ticket to help them overcome whatever they were dealing with. What I found instead was the single most amazing collection of disabled people ever. I met an amputee who loves nothing more than skiing and was looking for a kayak that he could clip his stump into so he could tackle whitewater in the summers to keep in shape for winter. I met a man with a spinal cord injury who saw no reason why his paralysis meant he couldn’t walk. He travels the country demonstrating a robotic exoskeleton and is currently in school for mechanical engineering so he can be more directly involved in all aspects of future development. There was a skateboard clinic run by amputees, there were climbing clinics run by people with a variety of disabilities. I meet one of my all time heroes Erik Weihenmayer, a blind man who has climbed Mount Everest and helped found the organization. At the intermediate paddle sports clinic I had the good fortune to meet a man with R.A. who makes elegantly simple gizmos to take grip strength completely out of the kayaking equation. I’ve just ordered myself a pair and can’t wait to start practicing with them.
It took me driving myself all over Colorado to fully digest what was so remarkable about this group. The cultural expectation of disability is one of suffering and being left out and stuck in a corner while everyone else does all the cool stuff. Obviously, this is an expectation I don’t agree with, nor does my life really resemble it. However, it’s so common that I do find myself internalizing it more than I realize. I opt out of certain social expectations and let myself off of the hook for things because I’m disabled and no one expects much of me and so I can.
Life is not perfect for anyone. I’m sure the people I met at No Barriers are no exception. However, what they do have on their side is the gumption to show up for life and say ‘this is what I want, these are my expectations for myself, and I don’t care what other people imagine my limitations to be. I’m here to have the best, fullest, most awesome life ever, and I’ll figure out my own way to do that.’ Beyond that, they show up for each other. They say, ‘I figured this out for myself, let’s see what we can do so you can have the same experience no matter what obstacles are in your way’. The attitudes of the people at No Barriers for the first time in a long time left me feeling like I have much more to offer than I’ve led myself to believe. I’m all fired up to figure out how to throw myself into the heart of things and bring people along with me. What’s more, I can’t wait for 2015!