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A zoomed out photo of people walking and in wheelchairs next to a Moai statue walking up a hill

The Marathon to Make the World Accessible

Since I was a little boy I had dreamed of entrepreneurship, inspired by the trajectory of my grandparents, parents and siblings. At the age of 18 my whole life became an entrepreneurship in itself. I was in a car accident that left me quadriplegic, leaving my body paralyzed from the shoulders down. Like all entrepreneurial endeavors, I had to start from scratch.

First, I needed my family and friends who gave me the support and strength to rebuild my independence and my life. They were my initial support.

I also had to work up the courage to focus on my rehabilitation and learn to use my body differently. In the beginning, I spent many weeks just doing the exercise of lifting my right wrist with endless sets of 100 repetitions, as it was the only movement of my arms that I could do. It seemed to be extremely useless, but thanks to that exercise, today I can do many things on my own, such as using a computer keyboard to type this article.

I realized that building my life, like building a startup, takes a lot of time, dedication and means receiving support from third parties. But even more than that, I understood that I had to take risks to achieve my personal and professional dreams in a world that was not designed for people with my condition: an inaccessible world. In sports slang, I was not in a 100-meter sprint, but in a marathon.

As I grew up, matured, and gained independence, I returned to my dream of entrepreneurship. With the conviction that it had to be with the objective of solving problems that I personally faced every day related to disability, or rather, related to the lack of accessibility.

I went through several ideas. The opportunity to create Wheel the World, with the mission of making it possible for people with any type of disability to explore the world came by chance. Through a unique trip to Chilean Patagonia and finding a great partner and a talented team that had the common purpose of making the world accessible, Wheel the World got its start. 

A man in a trekking wheelchair climbs up a trail with the support of two other men. Jagged mountains are in the background and all are smiling.
The trip to Patagonia, where it all started

Today at Wheel the World, we are building the best accessible tourism solution, so that millions of people with disabilities can search and book travel experiences in thousands of destinations. Now I imagine that many, upon learning about Wheel the World, are wondering: why accessible travel and tourism? Of course, people with disabilities have to make progress on so many other issues that it is a legitimate question. Why strive to make an industry, that is superficially only a privilege, accessible, when there are deficiencies in health, education, access to housing, and a long etcetera? But from my perspective, as a person who has lived with a disability for 17 years, and from the Wheel the World team, we have an answer. 

First, why not? Opportunities for people with disabilities have no buts, or should have no buts. There should be no ceiling to limit our possibilities. In that sense, the right to recreation, movement, exploration, discovery and free travel should not be the exception. 

Second, I believe (and we believe) that allowing people with disabilities to have travel experiences is truly changing the game. Because it’s exactly the last thing you would think would be accessible. In this way, it pushes the boundaries of what we thought was possible. As the saying goes “design for the extreme, makes the mean”

Third, traveling has been the best form of rehabilitation. Not only for me, but for many people who have traveled through Wheel the World. Tourism means throwing yourself into unknown places, opening yourself up to relationships with people who are different from you. It means opening your mind to unique experiences that you will never forget and allowing yourself to enjoy life no matter how much difficulty you have had along the way. Through travel and adventure I have built my independence and self-confidence, and convinced myself that my severe disability is not an impediment to achieving the dreams I have in my life. 

Accessibility is not just about effectively and practically making daily life more comfortable (and possible) for people living with disabilities. It’s about expanding our expectations of life, and expanding our aspirations and dreams. Without taking away from the importance of making all the other areas that also lack accessibility, more accessible, tourism and travel expand the scope of possibilities for so many people who did not think it was possible, not only to leave their country with their loved ones, but to go out and explore their own hometown.

That’s what Wheel the World is all about: making the world accessible. And we decided to start with tourism. Under these principles we have launched our new website gowheeltheworld.com which is the manifestation of our value proposition, purpose, and values – all at the same time.

We have designed a user experience under the concept that the most important thing for Wheel the World travelers is to know the accessibility information about places they want to go and things they want to do. That way, people can find options to fit each person’s individual accessibility needs.

A man and a woman, both in wheelchairs, board an accessible minivan via ramp.
Testing and mapping accessibility information on a tour in Mexico

How did we achieve this? We are digitalizing accessibility information about tourism in detail. We have built an app called Accessibility Mapping System (AMS), which is used by our community to collect and digitalize accessibility information about the tourism product. 

As I mentioned, the gowheeltheoworld.com platform offers three types of experiences: places to stay, things to do and multi-day trips. Each of these experiences has its corresponding accessibility information. In other words, if you’re looking for a hotel, whether in Rio de Janeiro or New York – you will have approximately 200 accessibility criteria measured so that you can make an informed decision that suits your needs. These include, whether the shower is accessible or a “roll-in shower”, the height of the bed, whether there are steps in different parts of the hotel. Travelers can even find out about accessibility of individual places you will visit on the tours: whether the public square has a smooth floor, whether there are obstacles, and so on. Our goal is that when people create their profile, indicating their accessibility needs, they can be matched with the accommodations, activities and packages that best suit their needs. In addition, our team of travel experts will make sure to confirm the accessibility travelers need at the time of booking. 

With this tool we expect thousands of people to create their accessibility profile, making sure that these accessibility needs are met by tour operators and hotels. We want people to be able to confidently travel and book trips through us, so that they can visit places they never thought they would be able to visit.

We firmly believe that people with disabilities deserve nothing different than people without a disability, and that goes from their travel possibilities, to the places they can go, to the user experience they have on our website.

But this is just the first few meters of Wheel the World’s marathon. We believe that this digitalization can be replicated in the transportation industry, labor, healthcare, and more – where it can help improve industry standards.

That’s the Wheel the World marathon, to make the world accessible. We started with tourism, who knows what comes next.

Written by: Alvaro Silberstein

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