A Wheel and Away

Carrying Kevan and redefining accessible

Kevan Chandler and his friends make quite a team.  The group of twenty somethings spent three weeks travelling round Europe visiting France and England before venturing over to the Emerald Isle.  The trip was such a success that a couple of years later they decided to repeat the experience, only this time visiting China. This doesn’t sound particularly remarkable – people go travelling all the time. Whether a regular holiday, gap years before university, sabbaticals from work, families giving up the 9-5 to five to take their kids off round the world, many of us share that same desire to see the world.

But Kevan did the trip in a backpack.  Being carried. When you speak to Kevan your first impression is of a positive, warm individual with a cheeky sense of humour and a down to earth attitude.  He is an avid storyteller, telling tales of growing up with a dad who worked as a mechanic for an airline and so got lots of free flights for the family.  He talks of spending time at friends’ houses for ‘Potlucks’, when everyone brings food to share and enjoy.  He talks with warmth and affection and you get a strong sense of friendship, fun and adventure.  

So when Kevan and his friends decided to go travelling these factors got them over a small stumbling block. Kevan has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neuromuscular condition which necessitates his full time use of a wheelchair.  Many of the places he wanted to visit would have been very difficult in a wheelchair so Kevan and his friend Tom came up with a new solution.  He is used to adapting – those potlucks he remembers were often in houses not accessible with his wheelchair so he got used to doing without it.  He tells me that his approach has always been if he can get across the street, then he can get down it.  If he can get down it, he can get to the next street.  Everything is addressed one thing at a time, enabling him to navigate past possible pitfalls.   He talks of spending a lot of his life at waist height with people standing over him. 

Taking a backpack such as parents use to carry their children, the two adapted it so that Kevan could safely and comfortably sit in it.  They recruited a few more friends.  And so they left his wheelchair at home, his friends carried him everywhere they went and together they managed to get where they wanted to go.  They visited Paris, went hiking in the English countryside and scaled mountains in Ireland.  And for the first time Kevan was not having to look up at people all the time!

The later adventure to China also challenged the idea of what was possible.  No package tour to accessible attractions, the trip began in the mountains of Guilin, fishing, exploring and experiencing Chinese culture, before spending time in a care centre for orphans with special needs. And of course they visited the Great Wall.

When asked what his favourite memories of the trips are Kevan doesn’t hesitate.  Sitting down to dinner at the end of the day, that gathering of friends and family and sharing experiences.  

It wasn’t all perfect though.  When talking to Kevan he is honest about the fact that in some ways it was a trade-off.  As he describes it, he ‘traded one freedom for another’, as, by leaving his wheelchair and therefore independence behind, he became much more reliant on his friends.   If the day had been long or tempers were frayed, he couldn’t just take himself off for an hour and do his own thing as he would have done at home and similarly the others had to always be responsive to him.

He says ‘With my wheelchair I can go where I want to but that’s not anywhere.  With the backpack I can go anywhere’.  But that requires others.

But everyone naturally took on roles within the team and he says they loved being able to celebrate peoples’ strengths and to help each other.   As he says, if you are looking out for others, then the likelihood is that there will be someone looking out for you.  And this certainly rings true here.

The travel industry is a huge one.  The accessible segment of that is slowly growing with more and more awareness of the requirements of disabled travellers.  Specialist companies talk of putting together accessible packages, there are photos in brochures with adapted rooms, full of grab rails and ramps.  This is all fantastic and long overdue.

But more important than any of this and the reason why Kevan’s story really resonates, is that real accessibility is about much more than this, it is about changing attitudes.  He talks with passion of the need to be creative and work together, as it is by doing so that we can redefine what accessibility really means.  Not everything will be perfect and there will be obstacles on the way but it is the relationships we have with the people around us that enable us to keep pushing for change.  

Following on from their initial adventure, the team fine-tuned the design of the backpack and it is now available through the not for profit We Carry Kevan.  Backpacks can also be donated to help individuals who could benefit from the freedom it brings.  The backpack is described as a carrier device specially designed for individuals with disabilities to go where wheelchairs cannot, with the help of friends and family.  And that is the key – a collaborative effort.

Kevan spends a large amount of his time working with others with disabilities, speaking to people about what is possible when collaboration occurs and supporting families.  The team have published a book about their adventures.   There are more plans in the pipeline.  I hesitate to use the word inspirational as many will know it is hugely overused within the disability community, but Kevan grins and tells me he is quite happy to be an inspiration if it gets people thinking.   

He wants to redefine accessibility and sums it up like this:

‘Disabled and able bodied communities need each other to make things happen.  It is a cooperative effort.  If we are creative and courageous enough to give it a try the world becomes accessible. 

Amen to that

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More details of the backpack can be found by visiting this page 

To buy the book ‘We carry Kevan: Six Friends, Three Countries. No Wheelchair’ click here

If you would like to read more about Kevan and the team, their adventures and the work they are doing, or perhaps make a donation, please visit www.wecarrykevan.com

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