Catalysts for Change In The Outdoor Recreation Space for Wheelchair Users

Catalysts for Change In The Outdoor Recreation Space for Wheelchair Users

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Choosing winners for the Travel Play Live Women's Adventure Grant - Adventures For Change Category was a real challenge, but to say that this project inspired us personally is an understatement. Meet Helen Smith and Lisa Edmonds, two totally epic women forging a path not just for women, but anyone who questions their ability to seek out adventure. You can read their personal story here & here. To find out more about their winning application, read on!

Tell us a little bit about your adventure

The Camino de Santiago (sometimes called The Way of St. James) is an extensive network of ancient pilgrimage routes stretching across Europe, all finishing at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Many consider the Camino de Santiago as the world’s most spiritual journey because of the inherent cultural connections the nature of those that tackle the trail. People have walked the Camino for over 1000 years, traditionally motivated by religion, however, modern day pilgrims like ourselves embark on such an adventure to immerse ourselves in nature and reflect upon, and appreciate, the simplicity of life.
Of course, for us - two women that use wheelchairs - tackling the Camino de Santiago will present its own set of unique challenges: we will be travelling solo through remote and rural places along tracks that are not considered ‘accessible’ by standard definitions. We will have to adapt our travel to match weather conditions and local terrain, and come up with innovative ways to overcome barriers such as gates, hills, mud patches and rocks. We want to challenge ourselves and push our mental and physical stamina beyond and above in order to demonstrate the power of passion and determination in making absolutely anything possible.
The pilgrimage route we have chosen is the Portuguese Way. We will be starting in the city of Porto, Portugal, approx 15 day, 250km pilgrimage to our destination Santiago de Compostela, this pilgrimage will take us through coastal villages, farmland, forests and vineyards. The vast rural land will provide a challenging adventure for two women that use wheelchairs, and we will need to endure many obstacles including challenging hills, small estuaries and sometimes seemingly impossible terrain to complete the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is broken into stages which will endeavour to achieve each day. This means pushing approx 20-25km per day into the unknown. We will be completely self-sufficient carrying our own belongings on our back and will be staying at albergues (hostels) during the evenings. We will not be pre-booking any accommodation, allowing for the journey to take its own freedom of pace and course and not be bound by everyday deadlines. Let the adventure begin!

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What is your inspiration behind the project?

Wheelchair accessible bushwalking in Australia and many other parts of the world is extremely limited. The vast majority of tracks and trails that are advertised to wheelchair users offer no more than a few hundred metres of concrete trail, taking the average user less than 5 minutes to complete. We want to highlight the absurdity of the situation by showcasing our adventure of 250km along the Camino de Santiago. We want to prove that wheelchair users around the world not only desire better access to natural places, but they are willing to push the extremes of what is possible in a wheelchair also in order to get there.

We believe that by showcasing our adventure, we will act as a powerful catalyst for change in the outdoor recreation space for wheelchair users. Bushwalking is such a simple activity, such a pleasure for many people to do regardless of age, race or religion, and yet people with a disability have extremely limited options for spending time in nature. We want to demonstrate that people with disability not only want to be challenged and grow through adventures in nature, but can succeed in achieving unthinkably distances of terrain by wheel.

How do you hope that you will inspire others through your adventure?

HELEN: One of life’s greatest pleasures is doing what people say you cannot do, and achieving a perceived impossible journey. We are trekking a section of the Camino de Santiago using our wheelchairs to inspire other people with a disability to believe in themselves and to dream big. Together, we will demonstrate that anything is possible if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone and have a little faith in mother nature and humanity.

Although the Camino de Santiago is a well-trodden path, we bring a unique flavour to this adventure by the fact that we are tackling the track as two solo women wheelchair users. This has never been done before. Not only are we addressing the stereotype of a male-dominated outdoor recreation space, but we are challenging the very notion that people that use wheelchairs should stick to short, flat, smooth well-defined wheelchair accessible tracks.

We want to tell the world that access doesn’t have to mean easy. In fact, the very essence of creating a challenge is what makes for an adventure worth having. This is what we seek, this is our dream and we simply can’t wait to hit the Camino de Santiago track!          

LISA: I think we and the adventure have the potential to inspire all walks of life from around the globe -  the adventure itself will hopefully change the way disability is perceived across diverse cultures. We hope it will also inspire and encourage women with and without disability to challenge themselves to see that there are no limits just opportunities when it comes to adventures.                              

 Where there is a will, there is always a way.

Where there is a will, there is always a way.

Why do you believe it is important for women to be represented in adventurous pursuits?

HELEN: Traditionally, the concept of adventure has been focused on people (especially men) going higher, faster, deeper. It’s been about that person who climbed the highest mountain or dived the deepest, or went the furthest without food and water. But adventure isn’t an absolute term, it’s a relative phrase. One person’s adventure is another person’s stroll in the park. So an adventure is something that only an individual can describe in their own terms through how they have challenged themselves beyond their usual limits, and through personal growth.

So it absolutely makes sense that adventure and adventurous pursuits aren’t restricted by gender, nor by a person’s abilities, faith, cultural background and so on. Adventure by its very definition is inclusive of anyone willing to go. So it’s natural that not only women be equally represented in adventurous pursuits, but also people with disability.

LISA: Women deserve to be equally represented in all areas including adventurous pursuits; they are not only capable and talented but also incredibly strong and fiercely determined to push beyond their own expectations and expectations of others. Women need mentors and role models to aspire to – to help them believe that life does not need to be ordinary and that creating their own magic and achieving their dreams is more than possible.

Who are some of your heroes when it comes to adventure?

HELEN: Robyn Davidson was always a hero of mine that inspired adventure and travel for me. Four decades ago, Robyn set out with four camels and her dog to cross the Australian desert from Alice Springs to the west coast. She moved to Alice Springs with no previous camel handling experience, and despite horrendous working conditions, wasn’t deterred from learning enough about camel handling to tackle the crossing.

In her book ‘Tracks’ she expresses so well the extreme highs and lows and the physical mental struggles as she made the crossing. After reading it as a child, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the idea of pushing myself one day in a similar way to experience these boundaries and immense personal growth too.

What are your favourite words to live by?

HELEN: “If you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space” - Stephen Hunt really grasps the meaning of living life to the full, taking a chance, and challenging yourself to the maximum. Living on the edge is not only about pushing your boundaries but also about experiencing more than what is in your immediate comfort zone, that is, going on an adventure. Together, pushing yourself to that edge gives you purpose in life and the room to contribute beyond yourself in a truly meaningful way. 

LISA: LIVE - LOVE & LAUGH

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Finish this sentence. I never go on an adventure without ...

HELEN: My FreewheelTM! This simple attachment to a wheelchair turns a standard urban wheelchair into something capable of tackling rough, tough terrain in comfort. Lightweight and detachable, the FreewheelTM is a fabulous travel companion that can equally well be used for a short trip back home right through to overseas adventures.

What is your once piece of advice to women who might be new to the concept of adventure?

HELEN: Adventure will find you when you’re ready. Often, a great adventure isn’t planned. It comes about from a series of chance encounters, spur of the moment decisions (sometimes bad ones), and being open to new experiences. We live in a world that is bound by rules and regulations, with strict timetables and routines that give no breath to adventure. Sometimes, by straying from your planned routine, giving time to chance encounters, sharing a meal with a local can be the start of breaking away from organised travel into the unknown world of adventure. So when you’re ready, think about walking (or wheeling!) the less travelled path and allowing adventure to find you...

LISA: Spread your wings and fly!

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