The Good Fight

The Friendliest Place On Earth

What better way to kick off a hot August day than a day at Morgan's Wonderland, the world's first amusement park designed by and for people with special needs?

Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, is the first theme park of its kind in the world to be designed for people with special needs. This summer, the organization set another world record, opening Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the first fully accessible waterpark.

A nonprofit organization that is bolstered by corporate and community sponsorships as well as a significant base of volunteers, Morgan’s Wonderland has always given free admission to guests with special needs—no questions asked—and hires a significant number of staff members with disabilities.

That sets the stage for people experiencing some things for the first time—riding a ferris wheel or a carousel, even the simple pleasure of swinging on a swing—and getting to do so among friends and family members.

The excitement is palpable. Folks spent a day at Morgan’s Wonderland and its brand new waterpark to capture a slice of that joy.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

“Being here is not like other places. It has diversity and it’s for everybody. They’re really friendly here, and the staff will help you out.”

— Gardenia Ariza of Houston, mother of two, who has suffered complications following two knee replacement surgeries and has been confined to a wheelchair off and on for a year

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

The rides at Morgan’s Wonderland, including a ferris wheel, carousel, train, swings and these off-road adventure cars, are all equipped for wheelchairs.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake.

“I love it. There’s so much to do, so many rides. I like the ones that go up and down and around the best, like the ferris wheel.”

Has it been a long time since you’ve been able to go on rides?

“Well, I can now!”

— Ray Longserre, who traveled with a group of residents from a memory care facility in San Antonio.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“This has been far and away the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”

I’m sure you experience a lot of powerful moments here.

“You know where Ground Zero is? The swings. To see someone swinging for the first time, and seeing a mom be able to push her child on the swing for the first time … it gets you choked up every time.”

— Dominic Fournier, assistant general manager

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“It’s very welcoming to the kids with special needs like my sister who has Down syndrome. My sister really likes the cars.”

— Lizjalet Rodriguez, 15, (right), with sister Stephanie Rodriguez, 11, of Houston

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“This is my second year volunteering here with my son Brendan through the Young Men’s Service League, a mother/son organization. My son and I did 35 volunteer hours last year and we just love it, it’s a great experience. You get to see people with disabilities and children who don’t have disabilities interacting with one another. There really are not a lot of other opportunities for that. It’s such a special place.”

— Gretchen Herrmann of San Antonio

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“We surprised them. They kept asking, ‘Where are we going, Mom? Where are we going?’ and when we pulled into the parking lot they asked, ‘Is this Disney World?’ It kind of felt like it, being in a big theme park but without the crowds. And it doesn’t exclude anyone — everyone is welcome.”

—  The Reagor family, Montae, Rachel, Ryan and Riley, of Mansfield, Texas

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Donna Brandel, a speech therapist, was visiting Morgan’s Wonderland with her nephew Logan, 12, and client Jonathan Teague of Pflugerville.

Brandel: “We really liked reading Morgan’s story—Logan is a fact guy—and I particularly like the special needs staff.”

Teague: “I like all the water parts here and the carousel and all the rides.”

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Morgan Hartman, the namesake of Morgan’s Wonderland inspired her parents Gordon and Maggie Hartman to create the theme park in 2005, following a vacation where couple saw that other kids weren’t interested in interacting with their daughter because of her physical and cognitive challenges. Their dream was to create a truly inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

“The environment is very inclusive especially for kids with special needs. We don’t feel judged—you feel free, I guess. There’s so many things for kids to do. We come here every week.”

— Meribeth Patterson (right), with her 4-year-old sister Ruby Patterson of Wimberley, Texas

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

About one-third of Morgan’s Wonderland staff members have special needs themselves. Administrators say this is an important aspect of “walking the talk” and providing positive role modeling examples for children with disabilities to see people like themselves in leadership roles.

What do you like best about your job?

“The little kids—I just like their enthusiasm. Because being disabled myself, I like how I can see disabled kids not only having fun, but being able to interact with other people. Growing up with spina bifida I was always teased a lot being in a wheelchair. … I have to say my favorite moment working here was when I first started working with operations and two little boys stood in front of me, and I asked them, ‘You want a ride?’ and I just gave them a ride around the park.”

— Connie Sauceda, 21, of San Antonio, a staff member since March. Morgan’s Wonderland is her first job.

Photo: Cynthia J. Drake

Morgan’s Wonderland worked with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to design a brand new waterproof wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of batteries. It contains no electronic components so that it can be fully submerged in water.

Sam Carver, 16, visited Morgan’s Inspiration Island with his parents, Denise Johnson and Darin Johnson from Wentzville, Missouri. Carver was among the first to try out the new chairs, wheeling it around the oversized splash pads at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, getting a refreshing soak on the 100-degree day. (The wheelchair isn’t pictured here, as it had to be recharged with an air compressor).

How did it feel, Sam? Does the chair feel like the one you’re used to?

Sam: “Yes, it felt great. My favorite thing was to wheel around and feel independent and see the new sites.”

Denise: “Does it make you feel grown up? That is exactly what he wants—he doesn’t want to be with his parents. Typical for his age!”

Health & Fitness

On The Mountain

Paralyzed from the chest down, Mexican athlete Arly Velasquez feels unrestrained as he trains for the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang.

Mexican Paralympian Arly Velasquez did not set out to be an alpine mono-skier.

For most of his life, in reality, he had rarely seen snow, let alone skied. No one else in Mexico appeared to be a professional monoskier. And for that matter, no other Paralympian was competing at the winter games for Mexico at all.

But against that backdrop, Velasquez is now set to represent Mexico in the upcoming 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. He has also learned how to wear cold-weather gear, fashion skis for himself, and live far away from his beloved snow-free country.

“Obviously I dream of getting the first winter medal for Mexico,” he says.

To that end, he has undertaken a training regimen that includes breathing exercises, push-ups, hours on the slopes, and gym exercises that help with balance, coordination and strength for his Giant Slalom, Super-G, Downhill and Slalom races.

His connection to the mountains, he says, runs deep.

Velasquez, who became a national downhill mountain biking champion when he was 12, injured his spinal chord in a biking accident a year later, paralyzing him from the chest down. He fell into a depression before realizing he wanted to return to sports.

But after trying adapted basketball, swimming, and table tennis, the now 29-year-old found his calling after skiing while on vacation in Banff, Canada, seven years after his accident. “It was the moment when I reconnected with my element,” he says. “In the mountains you have no limits. The only limit is your creativity.”

“In the mountains you have no limits. The only limit is your creativity.”

He eventually set out in a van from Mexico to Park City, Utah, where he credits a volunteer and anonymous instructor for telling him he had the attitude and skill to compete as a monoskier. “I think they saw there that hunger, that drive and I was quite encouraged by that. They gave me a lot of confidence,” he says.

He made going to the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games his objective. “I said, ‘If there are Paralympic Games, I’m going to go there,'” he recalls. “And it was like, ‘Well, will I be able to do it?'”

He trained in Oregon, New Zealand, and Colorado for slightly over a year and ultimately qualified to compete in Vancouver, where he saw that mono-alpine skiing could be a lifestyle. “It was a moment where I saw more people who were exactly on the same path as me,” he says.

He placed toward the bottom of contenders, but later finished in 11th place at his second games in Sochi in 2014— the best showing among all Latin American winter Olympians and Paralympians, despite a serious accident he had on the slopes.

That alone was a great feat.

Unlike other athletes from more developed countries who completely dedicate themselves to training, Velasquez has largely worked as his own methodologist, team manager, physiotherapist, nutritionist, technician, and publicist.

“It is not the same as belonging to the team in Austria where you just take care of training,” he says. “As much as I wanted to do it here, really, I had to do it outside of Mexico, away from my family, away from everything I always knew,” he says, noting the lack of resources dedicated to the Paralympics and professional sports in general.

“I had to do it outside of Mexico, away from my family, away from everything I always knew.”

Recent earthquakes in Mexico were another poignant reminder that many things are beyond his control.

Velasquez, who was training in Chile when the two large earthquakes struck, recently recalled a two-week period of confusion in September. “From Sept. 19 to 22, we were glued to the computer, there was bad internet so we had to get hotspots, have friends lend us internet to be able to know the news,” he says, referring to the moments after a second 7.1 magnitude earthquake caused large-scale damage in Mexico City and killed hundreds.

“After living all this you realize how fragile we are,” he says, adding that he was not in a hurry to leave home and continue training in either the United States or Switzerland.

“I try to take advantage of every moment I have with my family,” he says. “I think I continue because of the great support they have given me.”

Velasquez, who continues preparing for the upcoming games in March, says he has also acquired a different outlook on skiing in the last few years.

“After living all this you realize how fragile we are.”

“At this point in my life, I use my head more, and I think I don’t risk as much,” he says.

“I’ve developed a lot in these ten years and I have accepted the skills that I can apply,” he adds, noting his more mature perspective is an advantage against younger athletes.

One also has to keep the faith, Velasquez says.

“It seemed impossible that a Mexican was among the top medal contenders in the world,” he says. “It seemed impossible and it is not. When you are willing to put the work and desire, I believe that anything is possible.”


Roughing It Around The World, On Wheels

For nine months, Eamon Wood backpacked alone across Europe and the United States, proving the hostel life isn't just for those with the use of two feet.

Like a lot of Kiwi men, Eamon Wood’s a taciturn guy, weighing each word carefully, as if reluctant to let it go. He speaks in understatements, and when he relates the tale of sleeping rough and living on a shoestring budget during his nine-month trip across Europe and the US, he does so with the same casual tone he’d use to tell you about his morning routine.

The twenty-eight-year-old has just returned from the trip of a lifetime, or perhaps more likely given his nomadic background, the first of many intrepid journeys. And as he’s paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident at five years old, Eamon’s trip took place on two wheels.

Eamon Wood has spent the last nine months backpacking around the world in his wheelchair.

Eamon reckons traveling is in his blood. His parents–particularly his mom–never liked to stay in one place, and he had a nomadic upbringing. The family lived on a bus for a time, going from one small town to another around New Zealand’s South Island. By the time he was fourteen, Eamon had lived in thirty or forty places: he lost count after a while. At fourteen, tired of a transient life, he pitched up in the port city of Christchurch, where he stayed at a boarding school while his parents continued their nomadic lifestyle.

But his nomad genes bubbled up to the surface, and a couple of years ago he decided it was time for a change. “I wanted to slow down because I had a lot of things going on with sport and work, and I wanted to find time to stop and enjoy what was going on. Life seemed to be flying too fast for my liking,” he explained.

“I wanted to find time to stop and enjoy what was going on. Life seemed to be flying too fast for my liking.”

After a test run backpacking around the South Island, Eamon headed for the United Kingdom, where he spent a couple of months exploring, getting off the beaten track wherever possible.

The first few weeks were a steep learning curve. Eamon realized he’d overpacked, bringing not only a large backpack, but a speciality basketball wheelchair along with him. A keen player who’s represented New Zealand at the international level, Eamon had planned to shoot a few hoops while he was Stateside. But the games didn’t pan out, and by the time he’d reached Texas, he’d given his large backpack away in favor of a small bag, and stored his extra wheelchair with a friend.

Eamon easily covered 12 miles a day in his chair, he says. And like any other backpacker trying to save a dime, he used local transport to get around, catching trains, buses, Ubers, ferries and hitching rides here and there. Where he could, he planned ahead, booking ground-floor hostels. But Eamon’s philosophy of making those plans lightly meant he sometimes found himself hauling himself up flights of stairs, dragging his chair and his backpack behind him.

The road always provides.

Eamon lived cheaply on the road. He met people through the website Workaway, which lists hosts willing to feed and shelter travelers who repay their hospitality with work. He also played his guitar on the street a few times, something he said was scary, but on his bucket list. The first time was in Brighton, on England’s south coast, and it was the coldest day of the year.

“It was so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers. I made seventy cents. It was fun, but it wasn’t for money. My most successful time was in Texas, I went out on a Friday night and jammed out while the locals went past. I made seventeen dollars. ”

In the US, he slept rough, bedding down for the night on a pedestrian bridge. He’d pushed 43 miles that day and when it got to midnight, he realized he couldn’t go on. “It was in the Florida Keys and the bridge ran alongside a big car bridge. I didn’t want to sleep on the grass because there were heaps of spiders looking at me, so the concrete seemed quite inviting. I was just looking out over the ocean, it was definitely a highlight.”

“I didn’t want to sleep on the grass because there were heaps of spiders looking at me, so the concrete seemed quite inviting… After that, I could sleep anywhere.”

“After that I felt like I could sleep anywhere. I didn’t have to worry about making it to a hostel, and it increased my scale of what I could do.”

Traveling alone can be an isolating experience, but Eamon says he was never overtaken by loneliness. “I was in my element, I love my own company, I’m a real inwards person so I like to have a lot of time to just sit there and appreciate things. I feel like that’s probably the only way I’d travel now, on my own.”

When he did feel the need for a little company, a Facebook page he set up along the way, helped him connect with like minded people along the way, many of whom were willing to help with rides or a bed for the night.

“I think people were a little surprised to see me traveling on my own. Maybe I was less threatening as I’m in a chair, so people took me in, or offered me help.”

When Eamon couldn’t reach a place on wheels, he’d drag himself and his wheelchair there.

The flipside of being a non-threatening man in a wheelchair means Eamon could be left vulnerable in unfamiliar situations, he acknowledges, although he says he never felt that way.

“I’m pretty transparent and honest, and the naivety of me wants to believe in people, so I will trust first. There was a couple of times I ran into rough characters but they were okay, they’d just give me a hard time.”

One rough character in particular stands out, a homeless man Eamon met at five AM after a twenty-two hour Greyhound journey from Miami to Louisiana.

“A homeless guy came up and approached me, asking for money, and I was like, ‘oh man, I’m in a similar situation, I don’t have much money.’ But I took him out for breakfast and we hung out for a couple of hours, he told me his story. It was an unsafe situation but he seemed like he had his heart in the right place.”

To compensate for the dodgy bits, Eamon found plenty of those transcendent, unexpected moments every freewheeling traveller lives for. One stand-out experience took place at a tucked-away hostel on the Isle of Iona, a remote Scottish island accessible only by two ferries from the mainland.

“I ended up pushing along the island, it was beautiful day. I was wheeling down a grassy hill and stumbled upon this little hostel. There was a guitar there and I met a lady who played the fiddle. I sat out and watched the sunset, and we had a whisky and played guitar and fiddle under the stars. That stood out as a magical moment.”

Back in Christchurch, Eamon’s world once again turns around his work and basketball training. But the magic and music of a transient life on the road still calls to his nomadic blood. “I’m definitely not done with traveling, but I’ll wait and see. My whole idea of life is to have no plan, see what happens. You can sit and figure out a plan until your face goes blue and account for every situation, and still something you hadn’t thought of will come along.”

The Good Fight

A Catwalk For All

Inspired by her dapper, disabled grandfather, Mexican designer Annett Castro started Moda Incluyente, Mexico's first fashion show for people with disabilities.

Mexican designer Annett Castro worked for years in fashion, with stints at the country’s National Chamber of the Apparel Industry and creative agency Snoops, when a non-profit organization named Aequalis approached her with a simple question: Would she be interested in coordinating a runway show for people with disabilities?  She would.

“I told them I could help them and I fell in love with the project,” she said, noting her natural penchant to say yes to helping others.

In 2012, she organized a simple catwalk for dozens of non-traditional models in a local auditorium, attended by family and friends. But the event prompted a career pivot. She left her job at the creative consulting agency and started imag, Mexico’s first large-scale fashion show for people with disabilities.

“At the first show I knew this was what I was going to do,” she said.

Mexican designer Annett Castro, founder of Moda Incluyente.

To date, she has planned nearly 15 shows for models with motor, intellectual, visual, auditory, and growth disabilities at venues around the country, including Intermoda–the largest fashion expo in Mexico –and Museo Soumaya, a museum which hosts a part of Carlos Slim’s art collection. Her first international show will take place in Guatemala later this year.

“There was so much interest that we started doing it better and better,” she said, noting that the annual show at Intermoda has attracted crowds of some 400 people.

The catwalks, which include a cast of approximately 35 models with disabilities, are free of charge with the support of collaborators and are put on about three times each year. Over five years, approximately 100 emerging and established designers such as Maritza Peña, Carlos Herrera, and Isa Valdez have also featured their collections.

Some, such as Guatemalan designer Isabella Springmuhl, who has Down syndrome, are particularly familiar with the style needs of people with disabilities, while others design adapted apparel—such as textured or tailored wear for people with visual impairments or smaller body proportions— for the first time.

Necklaces with words etched in braille, leather gloves for wheel-chair users, and swimwear for women diagnosed with breast cancer have also all made their way down the runway.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world.”

“Each case is different,” Castro said. “Designers meet with the models and hear about their situations before doing their work,” she said, noting that collections are almost always designed around an overarching theme, such as “flight” or “city street.”

All models sit for hair and make-up styling sessions, in addition to photo shoots, and also take home apparel after the show.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world,” said Castro, who noted the personal motivation behind her work: Her grandfather, who she called Güello, used a wheelchair for eleven years. “He had a blocked shunt in his brain and started to use a cane and then a wheelchair when he began losing mobility,” she remembered. “We always said, ‘Oh, grandpa is old, that’s why he can’t walk.’ But now I understand it was a disability.”

Her grandfather died when she was 18, but continues to inspire the project. “He gave me a love for disabilities,” she said.

The shows have also helped her find a way to combine fashion and altruism. “We don’t see all the opportunities because we focus on glamour, but style is something that can be done in a kinder way.”

“The important thing is to be able to do something good within your profession.”

Castro, who was born in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, says she knew she wanted to pursue fashion from an early age. She studied at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara and eventually worked at the Apparel Industry Chamber and then a talent show sponsored by Elle and Snoops before her career took a turn following the Aequalis show. In the last few years, she has worked at Fundación Para Life, a foundation which helps businesses become more disability-friendly, and Arqcesibilidad, a company focused on increasing accessibility with products such as tactile paving. She still gives classes in fashion at Durango Santander University in Sonora, among other places.

“The important thing is to be able to do something good within your profession,” she said.

On a recent day, she was finalizing music choices and booking models for her next Moda Incluyente show, but she was not worried.

The end result is dependably gratifying, she said.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world,” says Castro.

“There is a moment when you know the models are happy,” she said, recalling one of her favorite memories. “At one show, a blind couple was going to model. And the wife said to her husband, ‘Feel my beautiful dress.’ And her husband swept his hand over the dress and said, ‘Wow, you are beautiful.'”

Castro broke down and cried.

“We are looking for people who have never thought of being models,” she said. “We don’t want people to say ‘Aww, what a nice show.’ We want them to say, ‘That model was so incredible even if she had a disability.”

Her aspirations are also evolving. She would like to create a modeling agency to promote models with disabilities, and wants to further publicize the Moda Incluyente shows and expand her network of collaborators.

What would her grandfather say? “I think he’d be very proud,” she said.

Moda Incluyente’s most recent fashion show took place in Guadalajara, Mexico on July 19.


How Birdwatching Helps Save Me From Chronic Pain

'Peace and patience' are rare commodities when you live with pain... but a day spent birding is an extra day added to your life.

I was a sickly, underweight nine-year-old using borrowed skates in the playground when one leg went east and the other west. That dark night, deeply in shock, my hospital bed was packed with sandbags to stop me moving. Full of morphine so the shock would wear off before surgery, I was fearful of the long sleep so, to stay awake I grasped onto and befriended my pain. This strange relationship with pain and disassociation with physical reality augured a life beset with, but not defined by physical dysfunction.

Even after I was out of the hospital, I spent a year barely walking, and doctors told me that perhaps I had some underlying condition, which would turn out to be ankylosing spondylitis. Struggling to find alternatives to bed, books, and boredom, my Dad took me to the lake, where we drowned worms and watched wildlife while fish ignored our bait.

One day, quiet and still on the water’s edge, a kingfisher landed on my rod, dived for a minnow, and flew away. He left behind a birder.

Almost sixty years after that kingfisher landed on my fishing pole, I still fish a little, but my lifelong passion is birding… and in watching birds, these everyday miracles of feather and flight have helped save me from the pain, depression and tiresome routines of a life of chronic illness.

These everyday miracles of feather and flight have helped save me from the pain, depression and tiresome routines of a life of chronic illness.

For two decades now I have been defined by birds and birding; writing about birding under the name ‘Fatbirder’ (the curvature of my back may be fickle fate, but the curvature of my front is mostly overindulgence.) During that time, I have traveled the world to see new birds, and found where the developed world makes a big deal out of the cost of making things accessible, the third world uses their ingenuity. (At home, it can take a week to get a wheelchair puncture fixed and months to install a ramp, in Kenya a puncture was repaired in minutes and a ramp installed between arrival and lunch an hour later!) Those travels are recorded in my book, A~Z of Birds.

Through birding, I have come to appreciate the ‘social model’ of disability. The disease or injury you have isn’t what disables you: it’s society’s response, (or mostly lack of it) which is disabling. The advantage of this concept of disability is that it stops you from seeing yourself as the problem, or relating to the world only through your disease or injury. Pursuing that model is just and proper. Moreover, when you stop relating to the world only through its interface with your infirmity you can transcend the labels that society often applies.

For me that transcending behavior is watching birds.  One could be quite simplistic and assume it’s all about the freedom of flying that birds embody. Our earth-bound bodies seem a poor second to the three-dimensional life of birds. What we must do at rest, some birds do on the wing. Some, like Swifts, fledge and stay airborne for as long as four years eating, mating and even sleeping high in the sky. But it is so much more than this.

Our earth-bound bodies seem a poor second to the three-dimensional life of birds.

It is hard to define the magnetic attraction of observing birds. Yes, they master an element we have taken millennia to even enter. Yes, many have intrinsic beauty. Yes, their songs can transport you to a concert hall or haunt you with their sadness, and yes, many show amazing intelligence despite their tiny brains. The truth has many levels from beauty to awe, from the loyalty of life mating storks, to the super-fast voracity of a hawk or the plaintive call of a curlew on a moor. For me, it is that I become captured by their movement, haunted by their song, inspired by their jeweled or cryptic plumage. It is no one aspect, nor even all aspects, but the fact that I become lost. And in becoming lost, I lose my pain, transcend my physical restrictions and forget the daily drudgery of medication and disabled daily living.

The novelist wrote ‘I am camera’, not ‘I am a photographer’. Somewhere around twenty years ago I stopped being someone who watches birds and became ‘birder’. I watch birds, make a living through birds, write about birds, travel for birds, and  passionately defend birds against habitat destruction. Birding doesn’t just define me: it saves me from myself. It’s not only mindfulness, although doing what you enjoy definitely does you good. Bird song is the choir and nature the cathedral that define my spirituality, taking my soul where the frail body cannot go.

Birding doesn’t just define me: it saves me from myself.

In 1653, in ‘The Complete Angler’ Isaac Walton talked of Sir Henry Wotton, describing him as… ‘a most dear lover and a frequent practicer of the Art of Angling’; of which he would say, “‘Twas an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness;” and “that it begat habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practised it.”

All of which could be said about birding, but in spades. ‘Peace and patience’ are rare commodities when you live with pain, the daily grind of taking hours to achieve what able-bodied people can do in minutes, or the frustration of seeing what is often out of your reach. Those vicissitudes rob you of days, but a day spent birding is an extra day added to your life.

Photo provided under Creative Commons license by Flickr user coniferconifer.