From the pristine landscapes of remote Iceland to the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui to a sailboat moored on the sunny coast of Florida, wheelchair users live anywhere they want — successfully. It takes problem-solving, creativity and flexibility, but living in paradise more than makes up for any access-related inconveniences.
Jón Gunnar Benjaminsson:
It may be a stretch for most Americans to think of Iceland as paradise, but for those who call it home, the dramatic beauty of the island nation is as close to Valhalla-on-earth as one can get. And like most Icelanders, Jón Gunnar Benjaminsson, 40, is protective of his home island. “Our nature with its vast wilderness, towering mountains and glaciers, black volcanic sand beaches and lush green valleys, is not ours but something we borrow from the next generation and generations to come,” says Benjaminsson. “We simply must treat it that way and not like it belongs to us.”
Benjaminsson, a para and founder/owner of the travel company Iceland Unlimited, invites lovers of the outdoors to come spend a week in his nation. “Iceland is a small island. You can capture the whole experience in an eight-day round trip of the island,” he says. “You can experience paragliding in a specialized, custom-built chair with an experienced instructor, boat cruises on glacial lagoons, ATV tours on black sand beaches, snowmobiling on glaciers, and bathing in natural geothermal hot springs in the highlands. And you can go snorkeling in crystal clear water in a lava fissure, to name a few options.”
He says his favorite spot is probably Eyjafjörður fjord in Northeast Iceland. “That’s where I was born and grew up. My parents and oldest brother still live there and I spend half of the summer there, fishing and spending time with my family.?”
But the most beautiful site in Iceland is probably around Skaftafell, located within the Vatnajökull National Park. “It’s a lush green oasis of birch trees, located between the vast Vatnajökull glacier and the black volcanic beach of Skeiðarársandur, so you have these contrasts there in one spot — white glacier, green trees and black beach. It’s spectacular.”
At Home in Reykjavik
Benjaminsson was working as a tour guide in Reykjavik when a 2007 car accident during a goose-hunting trip led to his L1-2 incomplete injury. He rehabbed for nine months and then moved back home with his parents. “It was very comfortable living with them, but I decided that wasn’t the future, so I moved back to Reykjavik,” he says. “I needed to reclaim my independence.”
While getting used to his new reality and regaining upper body strength, Benjaminsson spotted an ad calling for grant applicants by 66° North, a major outdoor clothing company in Iceland. He applied and his idea to travel on an ATV to assess the accessibility of public huts in the highlands of Iceland was chosen. That 2009 trip led to an additional grant from the Iceland Tourist Board to improve accessibility at selected locations.
In 2010 Benjaminsson started Iceland Unlimited. One of his younger brothers now works for him as a professional guide. They slowly grew and moved to a larger office to accommodate 10 employees. “Getting the initial grant from 66° North allowed me to believe in myself again after my injury. It was a turning point,” he says.
In 2011 he bought a brand new apartment in Reykjavik so close to his office that he can wheel to work in the summer. He requested the oven be lowered and a roll-in shower added to the bathroom. Since he loves barbecuing in the summer, he also requested custom ramps to make both of his balconies accessible.
Benjaminsson says the city’s amenities make it a good place to call home. “In Reykjavik I’m surrounded by better facilities for therapy — swimming and physical training facilities that are available to people with disabilities,” he says. Though downtown Reykjavik is not the most accessible place in the world, improvements are being made on a regular basis. The city is becoming more and more aware of disabled people.
If you want to experience Iceland’s pristine beauty for yourself, don’t expect American-style access. “Iceland is definitely rough. We’re still in the process of updating our infrastructure when it comes to accessibility,” says Benjaminsson. “You have to be aware of this and be ready for rough conditions in some places, but don’t let this discourage you from coming. Anything is possible and if you’re up for adventure, we promise Iceland won’t leave you disappointed.”
“Everyone is jealous that I live in Maui, and I completely understand it because it took me 10 years to move here,” says Carole Zoom, 50. She lives on the south side of the island of Maui in Kihei, one of the most recently developed areas on the island, with newer construction. “The weather is fantastic and there are only six days of rain all year” — her favorite thing about the island. Zoom, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a vent, loves the mellow Hawaiian lifestyle and can often be found relaxing on her lanai, reading a book while basking in the sun.
An accomplished travel writer, Zoom and her husband started coming to Maui in 2003 from their home in Austin, Texas, to take advantage of their timeshare. They soon found it was easier to travel to some of their favorite destinations in Asia from Maui. “In June 2012, we were on vacation here, and I told my husband that I didn’t want to get back on the plane and leave,” says Zoom. So they stayed.
The Kihei region has small shops to visit, restaurants that cater to both tourists and locals, and a bustling farmer’s market. Zoom especially enjoys going to the theater and local events. Plus, Maui’s not that large, so all of its attractions can be accessed from Kihei. “In Maui you have this nice balance of quiet with activities when you want them.”
Zoom and her husband, Patrick Carpenter, found a condo facing Maalaea Bay that had been recently updated. They widened the small bathroom’s door, removed the tub and built a roll-in shower. There are accessible shops and places to eat right downstairs.
When she broke her femur soon after moving into the new condo, Zoom discovered that, to her surprise, “the caliber of doctors on Maui is exceptional, incredibly high quality for the small island. And they accept Medicare. There are some very, very good specialists.”
Hawaii has a reputation for being very expensive since almost everything has to be either flown or shipped in. But Zoom says if you’re careful, it’s not that much more expensive than Portland or Austin. She saves money by buying her fruit at farm stands instead of the grocery store, and she avoids processed food that has to be brought in from the mainland.
Also, the ADA hasn’t yet fully penetrated our 50th state. “Most of Hawaii is not as advanced in disability rights and wheelchair access as other places in the United States,” says Zoom, who once served as the executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “It’s still lagging way far behind. Some of that is because infrastructure here is not kept up.”
In some areas on the island, Zoom has to roll in the street. The buses are all accessible and there is a paratransit system, but they don’t run late in the evening. And although the ocean is very beautiful, beach amenities aren’t always built or provided with wheelchair users in mind. Wheelchair users who enjoy swimming may need to rent a beach chair from Gammie Home Care in Kahului. Also, Kamaole I beach has a free beach wheelchair available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Still, Zoom has no complaints. “There are ways for those of us who use wheelchairs and who aren’t swimmers to enjoy the beauty of the ocean,” she says. She rolls along the shoreline on a mile-long pathway near her home to look for giant sea turtles bobbing their heads up in the evenings at sunset. From November through March, pods of whales come to western Maui for calving season. Many whale-watching boats are not accessible yet, but Zoom hopes to influence that now that she’s living in Maui full time.
Anyone interested in moving to Hawaii should first plan a visit, says Zoom. They could even stay at her place, a wheelchair accessible condo she rents out on Home Away when she’s traveling. “I believe that anyone who wants to live in Maui can do it. It just takes some planning and some saving money to get over here,” she says. “Maui is a great place to live, and we welcome any visitors with ‘Aloha!’”
Who wouldn’t want to live on a sailboat? Sun on your face, wind in your hair — the smell of the ocean and the freedom to just pull up anchor and sail up or down the coast makes it a dream.
At least, Allen Fiske always thought so. “That was my dream,” he says, but after his T11-12 injury in 1982, he just didn’t think it would be possible. “People told me I wouldn’t be able to drive or work, all kinds of things. But nothing in the world ever gave me the same feeling as sailing. I’ve been around the ocean my whole life, and it just blew my socks off. It continues to blow my socks off.”
Fiske became involved with Shake-A-Leg, a Miami-based organization set up in 1990 to help disabled people enjoy the ocean, including sailing. Eventually he and a friend started chartering big sailboats, and he got some of his confidence back. Then, in 1994, he bought a sailboat using his rent money for the payment. Over the years he has stayed involved with the organization. He was director of watersports, facility and fleet maintenance from 1997 to 2007 and still serves as a part-time sailing instructor.
He has lived the last 25 years in south Florida, 20 of those on his 35-foot sailboat near Miami, the past three years in Fort Myers. Just recently Fiske, 69, bought a condo to give his body a break from the physical toll of constantly being on the boat.
“I just realized you only live once … one chance to do this,” says Fiske, about living on his boat. “It’s not easy being paralyzed, but if you can find one little thing that really excites you and makes you want to get up in the morning, you’ve got to go with it.”
Fiske has sailed to places like the Bahamas, Key West and along the coasts of Florida. He tries to do as much as he can himself and always takes at least one person with him when he goes sailing.
It is easy for Fiske to find a fellow sailor since he’s only recently wrapped up serving a term as commodore, or presiding senior officer, of the Fort Myers-based Caloosahatchee Marching and Chowder Society, the largest sailing club on Florida’s west coast. In a club of 110 sailors, he’s the only one so far who uses a wheelchair.
Making it Work
The biggest modification was a lift that lowers Fiske from the cockpit down into the boat, where another wheelchair waits for him. Rigging and sails are electric-operated, and a special cushion allows him to scoot around the upper deck. Fiske says it’s easier to get in and out of the boat if you have a floating dock. “It isn’t easy being paralyzed and climbing on and off the boat, but I love it so much that I make it work for me,” he says.
Just making the boat accessible wasn’t enough. Fiske also undertook some serious lifestyle changes — eating right and exercising — to be at 110 percent for the boat life. He dealt with pressure sores that required flap surgery, and also had shoulder surgery, but made it through the ups and downs. “I think the reason I’ve been able to deal with all this is because of the positive feeling I got from living on this boat,” he says.
Fiske says he doesn’t think most people take the time to think about what’s involved for a paralyzed person to live on a boat, and if they knew, it might scare them off. “Nine out of 10 might see what I’m doing and say, ‘forget it, too much work, it’s not worth it.’” Fiske grew up in Massachusetts in a fishing family and has been on or near the ocean his entire life. “To me it’s been worth it because I love it.”