Cory Lee is changing the world for wheelchair users.
He’s relied on a powered wheelchair since the age of four, when he was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, but that hasn’t slowed Cory down. To date he’s rolled through 33 countries, ridden a camel across the Sahara, floated across Israel in a hot air balloon, and has built a hugely successful blog showcasing accessible destinations around the world.
We sat down for a chat.
First up, tell us about yourself.
My name is Cory and I live in Georgia (the state in the US, not the country). I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when I was two – this basically just means that my muscles are much weaker than the average person’s. Due to SMA, I get around in a powered wheelchair, but that hasn’t stopped me from seeing all of the beauty our world has to offer.
In 2013, I started my travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, which highlights accessible – and sometimes not so accessible – destinations around the world. In the past five years, I’ve been swimming in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, and ridden in a hot air balloon over the Negev Desert in Israel. I’ve fallen in love with the world and hopefully shown other wheelchair users what’s possible.
Growing up, my mom always told me “If you can’t stand up, stand out”, and that is something I try to live up to every day.
My first overseas trip was a cruise to the Bahamas when I was 15 years old. The cruise was only four days long and we really only had about 12 hours in Nassau, but it completely blew me away. It was the first time that I saw a different culture, tried new foods, and met people that lived very different lives than I did. I thought, “If the Bahamas can be this amazing, I wonder what the rest of the world is like?”. It was during that trip when the travel bug within me was born.
It’s hard choosing my favourite spot in the world, because there’s something that I love within every destination. But every time I’m in Finland, Denmark or other Scandinavian country, I feel like I’m home. Scandinavians are some of the friendliest people in the world; they’re always willing to lend a hand if needed, whether I need assistance going over a small step in my chair or figuring out accessible transportation. Also, Scandinavian countries tend to be pretty accessible for the most part (there are over 300 wheelchair accessible taxis in Helsinki, Finland. I didn’t find that out until I arrived and started exploring the city, so it was a very nice surprise).
What are your top three favourite accessible destinations?
Aside from Scandinavia, some phenomenally accessible destinations are Barcelona, Sydney, and Washington, DC. A wheelchair user could visit any of these three destinations and have very few problems getting around.
Barcelona in Spain is amazing because, in addition to the public transportation being accessible (and the option to eat paella and churros for every meal), there are also accessible beaches in the summer. They have beach wheelchairs and even trained staff to help wheelchair users transfer into the beach chair and get in the water. Beaches can be difficult to access, so when I experienced the beaches in Barcelona, I was thrilled!
Sydney (in Australia) is another accessible destination. I visited Sydney in 2014 and it was the first time that I could actually do everything that I wanted to within a city. All of the attractions, restaurants, and transportation that I stumbled upon were extremely wheelchair friendly. I even got to do the Sydney Tower SKYWALK in my wheelchair. It’s definitely not an attraction for anyone with a fear of heights, but if you’re up for an accessible – and epic – view of Sydney, it’s the ideal attraction.
I’d also recommend visiting Washington, DC as a wheelchair user. It’s the capital of the US, but often gets bypassed for other American cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Washington, DC is where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was founded in 1990, so naturally it makes sense that it’s one of the most accessible cities in the world. The metro is fully accessible and most attractions are completely free, so if you’re on a budget, DC could be the perfect city for you to discover.
What advice would you give to someone with accessibility requirements who wants to see the world (but might be nervous about doing so)?
Start local. Take a trip a few hours away from home for a weekend. You’ll probably discover some interesting places that you didn’t know of, and it’ll also give you a chance to become more comfortable with everything that traveling with a wheelchair entails, like booking accessible rooms and getting around. After doing this a couple times, you should gain confidence and maybe you’ll be ready to take on the world.
To be completely honest, traveling as a wheelchair user isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning and creativity, so start planning your trip as far in advance as possible and stay positive. Even if something goes wrong on your adventure, remember that for every problem, there’s a solution.
Have you experienced low points in your travels, and how did you move on from them?
Oh, definitely! On my first trip to Europe in 2008, I went to Munich in Germany. The first night I was there, I plugged my wheelchair charger into the outlet with a converter and adapter. As soon as I plugged it in, the charger blew up. Literally. Sparks were flying and the power in our entire hotel went out for about ten minutes. Luckily, the hotel never found out that I caused the outage so it wasn’t too embarrassing, but I did have to immediately scramble to find a way to charge my wheelchair. I hopped on Google and searched for “wheelchair repair shops in Munich” and luckily, one of them had the exact charger that I needed. It was $250, but I had to buy it if I wanted to roll around Germany and Austria for the next couple of weeks. Since then, I’ve learned to always take more money than I think I’ll need; you never know what could happen. I try to stay calm in every circumstance and remember that it’ll all work out in the end.
What’s something you wish travellers without disabilities understood about what it’s like to travel with a disability?
I feel like if travelers without disabilities understood exactly what goes into the process, they’d be a lot more compassionate. Sometimes, when I’m boarding a plane and it’s taking me a while, I’ll see the other travelers looking sort of annoyed that they’re having to wait. They don’t understand that it’s difficult, because they don’t have to. I wish everyone could realize that anyone on the planet could become disabled tomorrow. By helping make the world more accessible now, you’re not only helping me, but possibly yourself or family members in the future.
Have you had any travel experiences that you still pinch yourself about?
One of my favourite travel experiences happened last year in Morocco. I led a wheelchair-accessible group tour, where some of my followers joined me in Casablanca, Fes and Marrakech for eight days. Afterwards I went to the Sahara, where I had the opportunity to ride a camel. I have wanted to ride a camel in the Sahara for as long as I can remember, but I realistically never thought it’d be possible. However, thanks to Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants, a fantastic tour company that specializes in accessibility within Morocco, I was able to fulfil my lifelong dream. They invented an accessible camel saddle, which is basically a seat on top of the camel. It had a headrest, support, everything! They really thought of it all. Because of this, I rode a camel in the Sahara and was able to tick it off my bucket list. I remember being on the camel and looking out at the sand dunes, and being overcome with emotion. Every time that I look at the photos from that experience, it’s surreal.
Where’s next on your travel list?
For the rest of 2019, I’m traveling around the US to some great places like El Paso, Albuquerque, San Francisco, and in December, I’m planning to do an accessible RV trip through the Florida Keys. I’m super excited for that! I’ve also planned some pretty epic trips for 2020 already, including Belgium, New Zealand, and a Curb Free Group Trip in Costa Rica.
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All images C/O Cory Lee.