Travel is for everyone. It’s something the industry frequently espouses but often fails to deliver, particularly when it comes to accessibility for disabled travellers.
In 2015, a group of friends from the USA began to plan a dream trip to Europe. One member of that group was Kevan Chandler, who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which means his mobility is limited by reliance on a wheelchair. Knowing that some of the specific places they wanted to visit were not wheelchair accessible, the group set about finding a solution. They designed a custom backpack that allowed them to carry Kevan on their backs wherever they went, ran a successful fundraiser, and in June 2016 set off for three unforgettable weeks in Europe.
The project became known as We Carry Kevan. We reported their story back in 2016, and now we’ve caught up with Kevan himself to find out more about his inspiring adventure, what the group is planning next, and how accessibility can be improved across the travel industry.
How did all of you meet and how long have you been friends?
I met most of the guys through the music scene in North Carolina. We played in different bands and just got to know one another over the years. I’d say anywhere from 4 to 10 years.
Can you tell us a little about what inspired this trip?
The guys and I love to travel together, road trips and adventures around the States. And I’d always wanted to visit Europe. My family came from England just two generations ago, and most of my influences (creative, spiritual, etc.) come from Europe, so there’s quite a draw for me. But a lot of what I wanted to see and be part of wasn’t wheelchair friendly, so that had been a deterrent. One day, though, it all just kind of clicked for us – what if we go together?
What were your main practical concerns while planning, researching, and funding the backpack and the trip itself?
Not safety! Haha, no. Our main concerns were to be fully present in our journey. So, getting logistics down as best we could beforehand, to have less to worry about in the moments. There was also a lot of work to be done on the backpack, trial and error kind of stuff. And then raising the funds was a big part too. We needed money to make this happen, but we were careful to make it an invitation versus an ask, fostering the right kind of experience for everyone involved, not just us going.
Did the backpack give you all complete access to everything you wanted to see in the destinations you visited?
Yes! The backpack was a great tool for this. Plus the innovation and willpower and teamwork of our little gang.
What were some of your favourite moments of the trip?
For all the high-flying, train-chasing, crowd-dancing, mountain-climbing adventures we had, I think my favourite moments were those quiet times at the end of the day with the guys. Watching the sunset in a park in Paris, falling asleep on the couch after a busy day in England, counting boats on a Welsh dock in the middle of the night. There’s nothing in the world quite like quality time with dear friends.
What did the successful trip mean to you (Kevan) personally?
Going into the trip, I had a misconception that “ success” would be marked by showing the world we could have this adventure with no injury or incident. But I was corrected about half way through the trip that “success” would be marked by simply doing. I was thrilled by the financial and social success of the trip, but ultimately just loved spending the time with my friends and being an inspiration for others.
Practically speaking, were there any difficulties in carrying the backpack, anything you might improve on for future adventures?
As we went along, we improved and made notes of things to tweak. Each carrier was limited to 45 minutes before switching out, which allowed them to rest and be ready for helping later. Since returning home, we’ve been working with Deuter [a German bag manufacturer] to develop a whole new pack. It will have all the features we did but improved to be adjustable for more needs, and the official weight capacity will be almost doubled.
What should popular tourist destinations around the world be doing to improve accessibility?
Have open minds to be creative in the moment. No one wants an elevator in the middle of a 1,600 year old castle, that’d ruin the aesthetic, but there are ways around the need. Carry a person, let their friends carry them, for example. Have a ramp tucked away just in case. Just keep an open mind and open hand to special circumstances.
The backpack is one solution to greatly improve accessibility, but presumably wouldn’t be suitable for everybody. In what areas do you think similar innovation needs to take place?
Exactly! That worked for us, for me, and it’ll be great for some people, but not everyone. It’s just a tool to manifest the deeper solution. True accessibility comes from people helping people, getting selfless and creative, and the sky’s the limit when that’s the case. Whether it’s a mobile disability, visual impairment, developmental disability, etc etc, when people get involved and start working together (on both ends), the results are beyond my imagination and gets me really excited!
What has the wider response been to your successful trip?
Accessibility is being redefined! People are inspired to work together and think outside the box to care for one another. A lot of families who already do this to whatever extent are challenged, refreshed, and encouraged. We’re shaking things up and having a blast with it!
You’ve now established a nonprofit – We Carry Kevan – dedicated to reimagining accessibility. Can you tell us a little more about your goals there?
As we share our story, and continue to live it out, the nonprofit is there to give a practical application to the inspiration. We are developing the backpack, for starters, and we are connecting people internationally to work together to enjoy unique accessible experiences.
Your next trip is even more ambitious – China! What are you most looking forward to seeing and doing there?
China is going to be incredible! I can’t wait! We are spending a lot of our time with a chain of care centres, set up by Show Hope. They provide special care to orphans with disabilities, so we’re excited to hang out with the kids and doctors there. Of course, while we’re there, we’ll be doing some exploring and adventuring.
We Carry Kevan is now fundraising for their trip to China! You can read more about it and donate on their GoFundMe page.