An Adventure On Wheels
In 20 States On Wheels, Harvard students celebrate wheelchair travel.
It all started with a simple “Hi” in Harvard Yard during freshman orientation week, when Brad Riew ’17 met Kunho Kim ’17 outside Thayer, their future dorm. Kim hails from South Korea; Riew is from St. Louis. They discovered that they both loved travel and adventures, and both dreamed of completing a road trip around the United States. Excited, they started talking about realizing the dream during their freshman summer.
They faced only one problem: Kim uses a wheelchair to get around. Five years ago, when he was attending high school in Montana on an exchange program, he was paralyzed from the waist down after landing on his back doing a ski trick.
But the two freshmen decided that their dream of seeing the United States would not be crushed. Yet, challenges abounded: where would they find information about whether a certain attraction, hotel, restaurant, subway station, or bathroom was accessible by wheelchair?
A simple glance at the most popular travel guides was anything but encouraging. Google and Yelp do not include accessibility in their reviews. Though Hotels.com and Expedia.com mark certain hotels as “accessible,” Kim’s and Riew’s phone calls revealed that some actually were not. There were hotel receptionists who did not even know what “accessibility” meant.
Frustrated by the scarcity of information, Kim and Riew decided to use their trip to turn things around: they would review every destination from the perspective of a wheelchair user, and write a travel guide for people with disabilities.
Spring semester was a whirlwind of planning and seeking support: they needed to rent a car, plan the route, book hotels, and most importantly, get funding for their trip. They started a fundraising campaign on Trevolta.com, a crowdfunding site for inspiring travel projects, staying up until 5 a.m. for two weeks to make the video explaining their cause.
Hundreds of phone calls and e-mails later, the two managed to raise $16,000 from crowdfunding, grants, and sponsorships. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation awarded them its Quality of Life grant. Hertz gave them a discount. Some hotels offered them free stays. H Mart, a Korean supermarket in Cambridge, chipped in as well. Their Trevolta campaign raised more than $6,000 from more than a hundred contributors. Kim and Riew also welcomed two new members to their traveling team: You-Myeong Kim ’17 and Cynthia Cheung, a friend Kunho met through a conference at Harvard.
For seven weeks during the summer of 2014, the quad drove a Yukon XL across the country, from San Francisco to Boston, visiting 20 destinations along the way. (Using the hand control, Kim drove for half the trip.) They rode roller coasters at Universal Studios, camped in the Grand Canyon, hiked the Rocky Mountains, and visited memorials in Washington, D.C. Despite the many frustrations and inconveniences (for example, booking a truly accessible hotel was always a hassle), the challenges only made the trip a more memorable and precious experience for the team.
The fruit of their project is a 398-page book, 20 States On Wheels—A Wheelchair Accessible Tour Guide to the United States, which will be published online on October 25. (Interested readers can sign up to receive notification of publication.) The e-book is both a colorful chronicle of their ambitious trip and a practical guide that caters to the needs of wheelchair users. It starts with useful advice on pre-trip preparations—including how to rent a car, obtain a disability parking placard, and navigate airports—and goes on to review each of their 20 destinations, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, from Niagara Falls to New York. Each review contains a list of accessible hotels, public-transit maps that display only the accessible stations, and the location of accessible bathrooms. The guide is the culmination of two years of hard work, including meticulous note-taking during the trip and countless hours of post-trip research.
Overall, Riew said, the cities they visited do a fairly good job with accessibility, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The least wheelchair-friendly place the team encountered that summer was actually Boston, with its many historic buildings. “This was sometimes frustrating,” Riew wrote: “to come home to what was in places the least accessible area we’d been to.”
In the book’s foreword, the authors wrote that they hope to dispel the notion that wheelchair users cannot participate in meaningful activities like traveling. In order to make the book itself accessible, they plan to distribute it for free both on- and offline, and send copies to disability-related organizations around the country. “We wanted to make a book that people would enjoy reading,” Kim said, “and we hope that people actually use it.”
Zara Zhang ’17 was the Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow at Harvard Magazine this past summer.