No Limits: Adventure Travel for People With Disabilities

Scott Ostrom considers working with Telluride Adaptive Sports the best thing he has ever done. (Photo: Scott Ostrom)

“When you’re skiing, you’re not thinking about being overseas or bills or family or all the other stupid life stuff,” says Telluride ski instructor Scott Ostrom. “You’re just thinking, Don’t fall down. Have as much fun as you can, and don’t fall down.”

That feeling was especially freeing for Ostrom, who came back from two tours as a marine in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and acute PTSD. He fell in love with the sport during an adventure retreat for wounded warriors. After two ski weeks with Telluride Adaptive Sports Program, an outfit that makes mountain adventure accessible to wounded warriors and others with physical or cognitive disabilities, he went back for a summer program in 2014. On the drive there, he wrote his proposed job description in hopes they would hire him — the experience moved him so much that he decided to make it his career. It worked, and he’s now TASP’s veteran liaison, helping vets of all abilities — PTSD sufferers, amputees, paraplegics — organize trips for special veterans’ weeks each winter. “These guys need a break from their minds, and skiing does that.”

That escape is sometimes just a start, as Ostrom, who also works as an adaptive-skiing instructor for TASP guests of all stripes throughout the season, has found that helping others gives him purpose. “I skied with a six-year-old girl with cerebral palsy on Christmas. She was the cutest thing in the world,” he says. “Best Christmas ever.”

Telluride Adaptive sports allows skiers of all abilities to hit the slopes. (Photo: Telluride Adaptive Sports)

Better still: A few weeks later, he heard from her parents, and the news was better than expected after a single lesson. But that’s how powerful adventure sports can be: “She’s a totally different girl,” feeling confident enough to walk without her walker, making an effort to just go after life. It’s stories like hers, and similar ones from vets, that lead Ostrom to conclude, “This job has replaced going overseas to fight as a marine as the best thing I’ve ever done.”

It certainly has profound effects on the people who experience it. “Adventure travel is a powerful source of cognitive and emotional stimulation, challenge and accomplishment” for anyone, says Frank Farley, PhD, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Adventure in general can be a boon for disabled individuals. It can help to get them into experiences beyond the status quo, encouraging them into new behaviors that can strengthen their self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-efficacy.”

Take scientific support like that, new exoskeleton technologies that make movement easier, and the rise of high-profile disabled badasses like Erik Weihenmeyer, the blind adventurer who has climbed all Seven Summits, and it’s no wonder adaptive adventure travel has lately grown by leaps and bounds. 

WATCH: A Blind Adventurer Launches An Epic 21-Day Kayak Trip Through the Grand Canyon

According to Wikipedia, adventure travel for the disabled has become a $13 billion-a-year business in North America. And although the Adventure Travel Trade Association doesn’t keep stats on adaptive travel, an inquiry I made through that organization quickly connected me with dozens of operators. (DisabledTravelers.com lists even more.)

One of the leaders in this field has been Challenge Aspen — Colorado seems to be a hotbed of this — which grew out of one man’s epiphany. After Houston Cowan read an article in 1994 about someone teaching blind people to ski in Snowmass, he got trained to teach adaptive skiing (using special equipment and techniques to make skiing possible for people with sight impairments, amputations, paralysis, or other disabilities). In short order, he quit his broker job in Chicago, sold everything, and moved to Colorado to start Challenge Aspen, an organization that teaches adaptive mountain sports. He’s still the CEO.

While the original constituency was the visually impaired, the nonprofit now welcomes adults and children with 150 different disabilities year-round. (Challenge Autism and wounded warrior camps are focuses.) The camps teach skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, equine therapy, whitewater rafting, fly-fishing, and sailing.

“We help people remember who they were before their injuries,” says Challenge Aspen business director Jay Israel. “They might not be able to do everything they could before, but damn, they can still do a lot.”

A skier zooms down the slopes on a monoski. (Photo: Challenge Aspen)

In some cases, that’s really a lot. Sam Ferguson connected with Challenge Aspen following a 1995 mountain biking accident that left him a paraplegic. Within about a decade, he went from taking a few lessons in mono-skiing (using a single wide ski that can be steered while sitting in a chair) to winning medals in the X-Games.

“I soon as my ski hit the snow, I knew this was something I could be passionate about again,” says Ferguson, who grew up surfing, climbing, and canoeing but had done only a bit of skiing before his accident. “As far as adventure travel, to get out and embrace life again, it certainly helps to get out in the world.”

The transformation stories don’t have to be so extreme. Many “regular people” have had their lives touched by adaptive adventure travel without going onto become X-Games champions. Challenge Aspen participants also include people like Willmer Canas, a veteran who suffers from PTSD, and his wife, Laura Suarez, who lives with him in South Florida, “where all we know is beaches and flat land,” she says. They applied for and won spots in a retreat for veterans and their partners earlier this year.

“Healing comes from having a fun adventure,” she says. “But the true healing comes from being connected with others who have been on the battlefield, who have dodged the bullets.” And for her, connecting with other couples who understood the day-to-day difficulties, “what it’s like to live with a soldier who never wants to be off-duty.”

Sam Ferguson gliding down the mountain on a monoski. (Photo: Jonathan Seikowitz)

But in Aspen, “He was having the time of his life. He told me many times, I feel free,” she continues. “This is very big. These are men who don’t communicate a lot.” And it was fun for the warriors’ partners to “see a lot of smiling faces that were usually grumpy faces.” And although PTSD isn’t something that goes away after a single ski trip, she concludes, “I know it stayed in his heart. Travel is healing as it’s happening. It gives you a good emotion in your heart, and when you think about it later, that’s a good feeling.”

Related: Travels With My Mother: How I Vacation With a Disabled Companion

Community is also a guiding principle of Paradox Sports, a nonprofit that organizes rock and ice climbing classes and trips for people with disabilities across the country, including to climbing meccas like Ouray, Colorado, and the Shawangunks in New York. Climbing, in addition to being an inherently adaptive sport — able-bodied climbers use all kinds of equipment (crampons, harnesses, etc.) to extend their physical abilities — is collaborative. It’s a team sport, and in Paradox’s case, one that that mixes able-bodied climbers with adults and older children who have limb differences, prosthetics, visual or hearing impairment, brain injuries, and neuromuscular disorders (among other challenges, and they’re aiming to do more with kids on the autism spectrum).

“A lot of adaptive adventure programming has a separate-but-equal mentality,” says Paradox executive director Doug Sandok, who was drawn to the organization because it doesn’t. “We mix the able and disabled. This is a community where it doesn’t matter.” The result: “This changes people’s identity. They’re used to being seen as a person with a disability, rather than a person or a climber or a soldier. But we focus on their strengths and enhance them.”

Paradox Sports organizes rock climbing classes for people with disabilities across the country. (Photo: Daniel Sohner/Paradox Sports)

That was the case for Jeff Glasbrenner and his eight-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare seizure disorder. He came across Paradox on Facebook a year ago, checked out some classes at a climbing gym, and signed up for a trip to the Grand Tetons. “I liked the idea of it being something we could do together,” says Glasbrenner, who himself became a Paralympian after lose a leg in an accident as a child. (“I was always told what I couldn’t do. So I went the other way.”)

He says, “The cool thing was that they were so inclusive with her. She can’t do most sports, but she can do this. And if she’s climbing, she doesn’t have a seizure. Her mind is focused on what’s in front of her. It helps to be a little scared.” There are changes off the mountain too: she’s gone from 130 seizures a day to 60.

Life-changing adventure travel doesn’t have to involve mountains or giant adrenaline rushes. Most able-bodied people who have been on safari describe the experience as life changing (it sounds cheesy until you go). But while many people don’t think of it as particularly challenging, the traditional safari experience is off-limits to people who are in wheelchairs, require oxygen, or kidney dialysis. Inclusive operator Endeavor Safaris is aiming to change that.

Among their clients is Sonya Folca, who was born in France with spina bidifa and made the difficult decision to amputate her legs at age 24. Her back is too weak for prosthetics, so she embarked on life in a wheelchair — “I really knew what it was like to live in a world made by others for others” she says, and she had accepted that Africa wasn’t in the cards for her, even though she had dreamt of visiting all the places she connected with when she was active in the anti-apartheid movement at university. When she came across Endeavor, she wrote them straight away, got an encouraging response and booked a trip “in record time.” That led to her taken half a dozen more, from Namibia to Botswana to South Africa.

Endeavor Safaris believes that the safari experience should be enjoyed by everyone. (Photo: Endeavor Safaris)

“I had always actively avoided contact with other disabled people — partly, I suppose, because I was determined to dodge the stereotypes. I didn’t want to join a “club” and I didn’t want special treatment, so I couldn’t help wondering how it would feel to be just one of several in wheelchairs. But I needn’t have worried. Whether camping or in lodges, whether we’d spent the day in the wild or visiting a community scheme for battered women in a township near Cape Town, our guides created an atmosphere in which we all felt at home.”

At the other extreme, what’s really cool about the most accomplished adaptive athletes and travelers — the Erik Weihenmeyers of this world — is that they change expectations, both for the way able-bodied people see those with limitations and for the way they see themselves. Even if someone has no dreams of earning a medal at the X Games or summiting Everest, knowing those people are out there matters.

Related: Shocking Ways Airlines Are Mistreating People With Disabilities

“Society has informal bar for people with disabilities. Just getting out of bed doesn’t make someone extraordinary, yet that’s held up as an inspirational thing. We focus on the real accomplishments, not just celebrating that someone goes through a day,” says Paradox’s Sandok. “We’re saying. ‘I know you can do this, you know you can do this, let’s make it happen.’ This raises the bar for disabled people themselves and for able-bodied people who join them.”

That’s the idea behind No Barriers, an organization founded by Weihenmeyer, with two specialties, one for disabled youths and one for wounded warriors. They went big, focusing not on short camps but on epic 14- to 21-day “Soldiers to Summits” expeditions, up peaks that most able-bodied people wouldn’t consider. (There are also weekend introductions to what they call the “No Barriers Life” and weeklong trips formatted to provide a catalyst for change.) Among the participants are people like David Inbody, who lost a foot and his Army career when he was injured in 2012 by an IED in Afghanistan. He was selected for No Barriers’ “Mission Mt. Whitney” and climbed the highest peak on the continental U.S. last year. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says, “but I knew I needed something big to set in front of myself as a goal. I had things to keep me busy at home (namely, three kids), but I’d felt like I was drifting. The Mt. Whitney trip was significant for me because it brought back the importance of having a goal.”

Domonic Corradin has visited 19 countries…counting! (Photo: Domonic Corradin)

And then there’s Domonic Corradin, the adventurer who maintains extremeabilities.com, would certainly agree. About 20 years ago, as a high school sophomore in Michigan, he was in a car accident that crushed two vertebrae and severed his spine. Since then, the tires of his wheelchair have collected dirt from the 19 countries he’s visited in search of adventure.

Sporty and adventurous his whole life, Corradin recalls, “My accident only enhanced my desire to be as active as I possibly could. I wanted to find out what I could still do in a chair and then find better ways to do those things. I was given an awakening that life was short and not to be taken for granted. I wanted to take advantage of any opportunity placed in front of me.”

He entered his first wheelchair race just five months after the accident, which “made me realize how many doors were open to me” and just as important, gave him a platform to help others. Travel became a tool for that, especially when he discovered how many of his friends in chairs were hesitant to go abroad: “I wanted to dispel the myths, learn the tricks, and influence others to follow in my tracks, even make some of their own. Not to mention the personal satisfaction of getting to go to amazing places.”

He got back earlier this year from a 500-mile handcycle (basically a bicycle pedaled with your arms) ride/trek through China’s Yunnan Province for a program he started called “Krankin’ Thru China,” to introduce adaptive adventure sports there. Trips like that are one reason he celebrates “Gimp Day,” the anniversary of his accident, each year. “When I look back,” he explains, “I see that I have done more awesome things, met more great people, and been to more incredible places than I ever would have if it wasn’t for the crash.”

Programs like these are financed through donations, which can be made online to Telluride Adaptive SportsChallenge Aspen, Paradox Sports, and No Barriers. Donate frequent flier miles to Corradin via the link on his website.

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