Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lessons From My Travels (in a Wheelchair)

After my snowboarding accident in 2009, I quickly learned the world isn't made for wheelchairs. I've faced multi-story buildings without elevators; buses without wheelchair ramps, and metro stations without elevators. I know, it's crazy there are still these barriers today, right?  It's a struggle sometimes to fight the reality that I'm trying to function in a world that was not built for someone in a wheelchair. But as the old adage goes, where there's a will, there's a way.

I made up mind that I would never let being in a wheelchair and lack of accessibility keep me from doing all that I wanted to do. I decided that I would push my limits in this wheelchair and make each push count (so punny). My heart was set on traveling the world, even if it would wear out both me and AJ’s muscles!!I Well, after 23 countries and countless cities later, this wheelchair is still going strong (AJ is doing ok too)!

I've often asked myself, why do I go through all the trouble of being pulled up several flights of stairs? Why do I spend hours doing all this research to plan accessible trips? It's crazy the hoops someone in a wheelchair has to jump (or rather wheelie) through to enjoy all the world has to offer. And for me, it all comes down to the valuable experinces and lessons I've learned from my travels. Because I traveled:

I learned to love and appreciate people of other cultures. On my foreign exchange to Brazil, I met my host families and friends, and got live with and share experiences with them for a year. In this time, I learned that we each have great potential for something special and that transcends culture. We share the same desires to love, to be loved, to be happy, to have a family, to be successful. My exchange helped me see the good, love, and commonalities across culture and want to share love and positivity everywhere I go. I learned that long-lasting happiness comes more often from the strengthening of relationships. My relationships and experiences have changed me forever.
The time I surprised my friend, Nina in Brazil by popping out of this huge box as her wedding gift.
I gained a love for serving others. As an intern with an NGO in Cambodia, I saw the challenges brought by unfortunate circumstances that so many people must endure. I learned how privileged I was to be afforded so many opportunities, and I wanted to make the most out of those opportunities to serve those who needed some lifting. It instilled in me a desire to seek to make a difference for other people and empower them to live full, happy lives. It is partly the reason why I decided to pursue a master's in public administration and enhance my skill set to help others. I wanted - and still do want - to create opportunities for people to attain the lives they want for themselves and their family.

This was us through most of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

I found joy in simplicity.
Something I learned in Cambodia from people who didn't have much of anything was that I don't need material items to be happy. I learned that I could live more simply and still be happy. I lived that whole summer with alternating between 7 pairs of shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shoes, and 2 dresses (for church). I didn't look fashionable, but I made adventuring fashionable in my life. I worried it was going to be too much sacrifice with less technology, fewer transportation options, less money, but we were really happy living in Cambodia with the little we had. I learned to admire how people lived off the basic necessities and made do with what they had. I loved disconnecting and not having Facebook on hand all the time. I learned I could live with less material items in my life. I learned to love walking in torrential down pours and appreciate the raindrops on my face, and equally loved the feeling to coming home to shelter from the rain. Since then, I seek to live my life a little differently than before. I don't spend a lot of money on clothes and wear my clothes until they have holes. "Recycle" is a big word my kids know all too well. We max out as much of our items as possible. I learned I can be happy with less.

I saw that everyday people can make lasting changes. As an intern at the Scottish Parliament and in Washington D.C. (the time I met the POTUS), I came to appreciate how policy helps protect people as a whole (for the most part), in hopes of making a positive impact on the lives of our cititzens. I also saw the influence citizens can have on policy when they voice their concerns to their leaders. I loved how much my member of Scottish Parliament cared for policy impacting elderly individuals because he listened to their stories and worked to meet their needs. I loved that marching and lobbying for the Convention of the Rights of people with Disabilities caught the attention of Senate leaders and the POTUS.
Meeting President Barack Obama.

I found peace and power in stillness.
Every now and then, AJ and I take our family away from the city for a quick escape to the mountains. The mountains have a great way of reminding us that we are a part of something special. We are a part of something greater than ourselves. As I am surrounded by these beautiful mountains, my soul rejoices. I find peace and a closeness to God. I try to embrace the stillness of all around me and reflect on my life, my desires, and my goals. And every time I return to the mountains in the snow, I get excited because then I know it's time to get into my monoski, break the bonds of my wheelchair, and shred (or fall...either is pretty fun for me). Good things come from these mountains. One of our favorite nature spots is Yosemite National Park

I learned resilience through tough times and to not sweat the small stuff. When navigating new spaces and pushing yourself through new routines, learning to rely on your companions and even complete strangers, you prove to yourself that you are more capable than you ever thought. The first time we rode the metro up to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, we got off and went searching for an elevator to get out of the station. But after searching around to no avail, we both got in our dynamic duo stance, me carrying our backpacks and AJ flexing his muscles and gripping my wheelchair handles about to take me down a couple of stairs (takes a lot of faith, but I sure love this man!). But, a couple of guys on their way out spoke to us in French and after seeing the blank looks on our faces, they just motioned and picked me up in my wheelchair and started their descent. We have witnessed the kindness of so many people around the world through these tough times. And we've learned over and over again not to sweat the small things so much because it will all work out. We can take on anything that comes our way.

I know that many people learn these lessons (I hope) without having to travel around the world, but the point is that we've got to push our comfort zones to be able to learn these valuable lessons--to make a profound difference for ourselves and others. I've found that for me, traveling around, pushing my stress and anxiety level, opening myself up to new ideas and experiences, and seeing new places truly fill my soul and bring me So. Much. Joy. And travel has made up so much of who I am today.

As a couple, we are trying so hard to make travel part of our family culture, whether they be little trips to mountains, or a trip to Asia. We hope our children will desire to learn people's stories. We hope that over time, as they learn more of the history of the people and places we travel to, we can instill in them a curiosity to learn from the past and move forward towards a better, brighter future. That they may grow a desire to learn more and become more compassionate towards those who are different from them. We hope they will gain a passion of exploration and thirst for knowledge of how things work, so they can find greater solutions. Imagine the positive change that may come for the next generation as they seek to understand other people, learn from their surroundings, explore other options, and work together towards something greater.

The lessons I've learned from my travels are priceless. I've gained so much perspective and fed my adventurous spirit through my travels. I would never trade all that I've learned, even if it means getting kicked out of a bus station in Rome in the dead of winter....which did happen. But that's a story for another post.

There are so many reasons to travel that I can go on forever. Why do you travel? What's next on your bucketlist? I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this, so comment below!

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Friday, October 26, 2018

So I Met the President...

As we've been contemplating a direction for our family, I've been trying to draw on my past experiences for some inspiration. I came across one of my most memorable experiences--the time I met President Obama. That was the time that reaffirmed my passion and desire to make a difference for the disability community.


Repost from Diary of a Traveling Wheelchair:

August 6, 2012

I had the opportunity to sit down with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, his staff members, Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, and Kareem Dale, along with 11 other American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) interns to discuss the future of disability policy.

For 50 minutes, we had a detailed discussion with the White House staffers about our concerns and thoughts on all aspects of disabilities.  Suddenly, the door bursts open and in walks President Obama with his winning smile to the Roosevelt office and he says, "Hello Everyone," and everyone, stunned, stood up (minus me, Ben and Allie who are in wheelchairs).  I looked over to Ben and Frances and we widened our eyes at each other.  He proceeds to shaking everyone's hands, asking their names and where they are from.  Halfway through, he gets to me, shakes my hand and I say, "Hi Mr. President.  My name is Martina.  I'm from Fresno, Ca, and my heart is pounding so hard right now." He laughs, gives me a hug, and then says, "I'm glad you're here.  Nice to meet you, Martina." 

It was an amazing session spent with all of his attention focused on what we interns had to say about our concerns for our disability community.  So many important issues and concerns were raised on behalf of our disability community as well as suggestions for change, which were noted by his staffers.  Some of the main points made were the need to decrease unemployment rates (very high 27% among those with disabilities, which his administration has been working hard to change, at least federally by opening up jobs for our population), increase community integration i.e. via education (equal opportunities and rights to higher education), and expand accessibility (universal design for everyone).

I talked about the importance of integration of people with disabilities into society/community via jobs, education, etc.  I focused more education because I feel the administration is making strides right now with employment of people with disabilities (and continue to improve).  I feel that if you want to instill values in someone, the best time is start is when they are young, which could be through the school system from K-12.  People become more aware, tolerant, considerate, and inclusive of people with disabilities when they gain more exposure to those who are different from them--this has been the case for many family and friends of mine.  Imagine a world where everyone including business owners and civil engineers realize that simple accommodations can be made for those with disabilities including elevators in business buildings, accessible elevators at metro stations, voice software for the blind (i.e. Siri was created for the blind), etc. that allow us to be highly functioning and independent individuals and able contribute to the progress of our country. And amazingly, people from all aspects of society have become beneficiaries of these services as well, e.g., parents use elevators for strollers, people use Siri when driving, etc. 

It was reassuring when President Obama told us that disability issues were very personal to him and something he cared deeply about.  I knew he meant it when he shared his story about his father-in-law who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the struggles he faced before ADA time, getting to his sons' basketball games an hour early with his family to get to the seats, as well as going to Michelle's dance recitals with difficulty.  He understood that there are challenges within our society that can be addressed with simple accommodations.  He said that his goal is to "provide equal opportunity for everyone in this nation to maximize their talents if they are willing to work hard."  That includes those who are in the disability community.  He told us that we are the future leaders of America, especially in the disability community, and encouraged us to continue to be self-advocates.  We can run a sub 50 in disability rights. It's important that our community is heard and that our requests are on the table. 

I left the meeting feeling empowered to get more involved in my community.  I gained so much perspective of the role I can play in our disability community.  Direction may come from a little inkling which may morph into a strong passion for great change. This meeting instilled a desire in me to serve and reaffirmed my passion for service.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this summer and cannot wait to apply all I've been taught to create change towards a better quality of life for others.

I want to thank American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) for making this experience possible and for all the great work they put towards advancing the disability movement. This has been an incredible summer and I couldn't have asked for a better adventure.  I look forward to what is in store.

Top: Rak, Jim, Mark, Frances, Zoe, Rachel, Shawn, Stephanie, Bonnie, Paul
Bottom: Ben, Allie, Me, Dana, and Adam in front of the West Wing

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