United Spinal Association’s Independence Expo-Orlando was held at the Buena Vista Hotel across the street from Disneyland Downtown on September 23rd and 24th, but the attraction for the hundreds of attendees and scores of vendors had nothing to do with fantasy. People with physical disabilities of all ages gathered with a collective spirit of “can do” to embrace all the solutions and information being offered for an active lifestyle at this premier event that was free and open to the public.
Born with spina bifida, 7-year-old Audrey Allen’s bright red hair and glowing smile made her easy to spot among those visiting the numerous vendors and break-out consumer sessions that had the Expo floor and hallways buzzing with activity. As I took notes talking with her and her mother, she offered an easy way to remember things, “by repeating things to yourself.”
Remembering her optimism, joy and energy while traveling through the Expo required no special technique.
Audrey told me she hadn’t decided on her favorite booth, understandable given the wide range of exhibits. From booths featuring accessible travel to designer apparel, high tech wheelchairs and power chairs to service dogs, Medicare/Social Security experts, consumer advocacy for mobility equipment, accessible gas stations, state-of-the-art exercise machines, accessible vans, outdoor sports; there was much to explore.
Amanda Perla, age 22, has used a wheelchair since her high school prom, when her friend fell asleep at the wheel. Now she works at Step It Up Recovery Center that believes in aggressive exercise to stimulate better health. “I enjoy learning from others as they visit our booth”, she said. Amada’s spirit could motivate anyone to step it up.
Is laughter the best medicine? Just ask those who packed a full house to see Damon Rozier, a nationally-known sit down comedian from New York City who uses a wheelchair. Damon shared his very somber and personal story of how he was injured in a motorcycle accident, before bringing tears of laughter to those gathered. I guess that’s why he wears a large sparkling necklace attached with the theater masks of Tragedy and Comedy. He knows both intimately.
Earl Heilm demonstrated his E-Z Pull Door Closer for me while noting this day marked the anniversary of his fall from a ladder that caused his spinal cord injury. With a wide smile that had long ago wiped away any hint of self-pity, Earl told me, “I have accomplished more in the past nine years since my accident, than I did in the previous 47 years of my life.” By the way, Earl enjoys water skiing, tennis, sings and plays harmonica.
Why do simple solutions take so long to implement? Fuel Call, a push button system within reach of a driver from their van or car, notifies gas station attendants that a wheelchair user wants help at the gas pump. It is inexpensive and could help drivers across the country fill up without waiting long periods of time. Exhibitor Patrick Hughes of Inclusion Solutions, who developed Fuel Call, is on a mission to get the system installed, so drivers who use wheelchairs, will get the service they are entitled to by law. That’s right, just a simple push of a button to change the lives of thousands.
The can do spirit was omnipresent. Even the service dogs of My Angel with Paws posed for a group photo smiling and ready to celebrate an active lifestyle for people with physical disabilities.
The full value of the Expo was highlighted, however, on my return home. By coincidence, Paul J. Tobin, United Spinal president and CEO, and I had reservations for the same flight. As a TSA agent swiped Paul’s powerchair testing for explosives, the agent told us of his long-time high school friend living up north who has cerebral palsy. The agent had repeatedly begged his friend, whom he hadn’t seen since graduation, to come and visit him in sunny Florida. His friend, however, was terrified of traveling with his wheelchair. Paul handed the agent his business card and explained that Able To Travel, the accessible travel program of United Spinal that had just exhibited at the Expo, could arrange every detail.
“Have your friend call me, we can help,” said Paul. As if he had won the lottery, the TSA agent smiled and said, “Well, I guess I ran into the right person today. Thank you!”
Everyone who participated in this celebration of active living felt exactly the same way.