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  • Writer's picturePeta

Ryan Smith: Accessing the world by wheelchair

Ryan Smith is a business owner, access consultant and passionate traveller. You might know him as Free Wheel Weekends his accessible travel company.

No surprises Ryan and Peta had a lot to talk about this week. From what life is like for Ryan living with his disability, defying low expectations in the workplace to why the tourism industry ignores disabled people.

Connect with Ryan:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I love to answer your questions. This week on the part, I have Ryan Smith for us. Ryan Smith is the Disabled Traveller, creative director of his own marketing agency and an access consultant. He loves travel and access just about as much as I do. And because of the level of his expertise in many of the areas that I love, I knew this was going to be a great chat. So with that, any further ado, let's hand it over to Brian.

Ryan [00:00:59] Hi there. My name's Ryan Smith. I'm a white male. I'm a wheelchair user in my forties. I'm a creative director and a designer. That's been my career for the past 20, 25 years. And I started the Access Agency recently with the aim to work in the access and communications space, specifically in tourism. I haven't always used a wheelchair. I suffered pretty bad arthritis in my mid to late twenties. And so I it was a sort of a decline in my knees. And I was using crutches for about six months or so. And then eventually it was so aggressive that I ended up in a wheelchair. And so that's that was a that was a sort of a slow, sort of gradual thing. There wasn't an immediate sort of overnight change of circumstance. So I had in some ways, I had time to get used to that kind of whole situation. Travel for me is about quality of life, actually. And, you know, some people think of it as this this kind of lovely, indulgent thing that you do for two weeks a year. I don't see it like that. I really see it as is something that everybody is entitled to and everybody should be able to enjoy. I've always had this curiosity and this passion to travel. I think it's the biggest gift you can give yourself. And it is such it's the it's the real opportunity to learn firsthand about life.

Peta [00:02:36] And your background's in marketing. So how is accessibility sort of intertwined into your life? Has it been because you have a disability or have you just been so frustrated with the lack of accessibility and you thought, Right, I need to do something about this?

Ryan [00:02:53] Well, you know, I guess it was kind of both, really, as a as a graphic designer, I've always been drawn to things that are functional, that are useful. And so I've always had that that practical side to the design work that I really enjoy doing. Now, as you know, as a as a person with a disability, you know, it's impossible to to find information and to move around in the same way that everybody else does. And I just think that's really unjust. And now it's kind of bringing those two things together, I guess. So I've kind of got a vested interest to improve this. I guess for me too, is when I was planning my trip, my first trip after being in a wheelchair. That's when I really started to notice that that deficit of information. I ended up on Google Street View and I ended up, you know, going through people's photographs and, you know.

Peta [00:03:48] Where would we be as disabled people without street view? Like, it's invaluable.

Ryan [00:03:55] And I actually found somebody had, like, taped an old camera to their motorised wheelchair and rode around parts of New York and, you know. Yeah. And this was in 2010, right. And so I was doing that, you know, scrubbing backwards and forwards on this guy's video going, Oh, yeah, I can probably visit that place and I could probably go this place. And so, you know that we've come a long way, but there's still a long, long way to go. And primarily it's about information. If you can't find the information, then you it just makes life so much more difficult to travel, doesn't it?

Peta [00:04:29] I don't know whether it's just an inherent thing in me, but I always feel quite guilty of the fact of how many places I've travelled to and the amount of opportunities I've had. Because I know that's not the case for so many people, whether they have a disability or not. But I really do link my ability to travel to Self-Actualisation and my mental health, and I just think that's such a missed learning opportunity that humans have if they don't have the opportunity to travel. And I think that's where my guilt comes from.

Ryan [00:05:06] I think I think we're all pretty good at fostering guilt in one way or another, you know. But I think, too, you know, there was a there was a report that was released a couple of years ago that said up to 50% of people don't travel because they don't know what to expect. And that's a that's a horrific number. You know, one in every two people with a disability just don't travel because they can't they can't do it with confidence. And I guess that's what it comes down to, being able to travel and have the confidence that you know what to expect. It's about having those realistic expectations and being able to go, okay, I'm going to I'm going to do this.

Peta [00:05:45] And I really do believe that simple representation that you do on Instagram to illustrate the disabled people can and do travel is really important and it's a form of advocacy in my own mind. But do you consider yourself to be a disability advocate?

Ryan [00:06:04] I guess I do, in a way. Yeah. Certainly I didn't used to be. I took a while to come to terms with my disability. And and it was it was a gradual thing. I remember going to work and I had a quite a quite a good job. It was, I was managing a team of creatives. I was travelling for work and I was presenting and consulting with customers. And it's, it's quite a confronting thing to, to sort of slowly, you know, first to be able to you to be using one crutch and then two crutches. And then I'll never forget, you know, the first day rolling into the office in a wheelchair. And, you know, people look at you differently and they they their expectations of you were different after that. And something kind of gets taken away. And it's really and it's outside of your control then it's really it's a it's like a tsunami of emotions, right? It's it's it's disappointment. It's sadness, it's frustration, it's ambition. And it's it's all these things all kind of compounded, and it takes a while to to navigate. And so if I'm an advocate, I'm an advocate for myself as well. And I think this is this is one thing that I've learnt over the years, which is, you know, you need to. You need to make things happen for yourself. And this is true of anyone. Disability or no disability. I'm going to tell you, it's my responsibility to tell you what I need and what I want. And and if that doesn't happen after that, then so be it. But I can rely on you to read my mind and predict what I'm going to need or what I'm going to want. And so you have to become a self advocate. I think the word inspiration has got a bit of a it's got a bit of a cloud around it. And I really a little bit annoyed about that. You know, I think I think to be and to be inspiring is a wonderful thing. I mean, wouldn't it be great if there were more inspiring people in the world? That's fantastic. I mean, being inspiring for the right reasons, obviously, you know, not not just for doing simple, everyday, everyday tasks that everybody else does. But I think being being inspiring is a wonderful thing. So if I can if I can be an advocate, then of that I would wear that with pride.

Peta [00:08:30] Well, I think you're doing a brilliant job, so congratulations. So tell me, how did you start Free Will Awakens?

Ryan [00:08:38] Yeah. So back to that sort of career, that stretch I was I was had a comfortable job, I suppose I was leading that creative team and I was travelling and consulting with design work and producing digital marketing and things like that. And I got a little bit comfortable and I'm, I'm in my forties and I was you know, early to mid forties and I wasn't bored by any means but I was, I kind of checked myself and I'm like, well you know what, I'm a bit comfortable here, so maybe it's time to shake things up a bit. So I took a gap year and I tried determined to sort of try a few different things until I tried sailing, I tried indoor mountain climbing, I tried ice hockey and all kind of all of these different para sports that are on offer that you could basically do next to nothing almost for free. So what I thought I would do is kind of keep a diary document, all of these different things that I was trying and that sort of grew out into places to visit as well. So, okay, if I was going to go and have lunch at a place in Richmond, then I would write about it. And so that turned into a blog, which then turned into a vlog. And then before you know it, you know, I'm in Egypt at the Pyramids of Giza with a camera and, you know, just talking about access.

Peta [00:10:06] To me, accessibility is a competitive advantage and I feel like I'm begging my head against the wall quite a lot, thinking, Why don't businesses recognise the importance of accessibility? Why do you think there's a hesitancy of businesses to become accessible?

Ryan [00:10:25] If there's a resistance, I think it's around. Not really. Understanding what that means and what's involved. It it really is such a missed opportunity at the moment. And I, I bring it upon myself to try and reframe that discussion about accessibility from moving it from that medical kind of compliance mindset into a customer service mindset. So yes. Okay. It's really important to have these elements toilets, parking, ramps and rails, all of that kind of stuff, and move it into that customer service space. So you're truly kind of welcoming everybody. And I think the resistance has been around a lot of the myths, you know, thinking of it's really difficult or it's really expensive or the market's not big enough and all of these things are incorrect. Right? The market is huge. It's it's a $10 billion market in Australia alone. Sometimes it's not expensive, it can be a $20 Bunnings ramp that can and that can help you welcome more people. Or it's as simple as changing the small grey text on your website to a slightly larger black text. This is not a huge investment in time or money, and it can have a profound real material effect on on visitation and people's experiences. I saw a quote the other day that said, There's more. There's more consideration around hotels for visitors with pets than there are visitors with disabilities. And if that's true, that is horrific.

Peta [00:12:01] What do you love about having a disability? Is there anything you love?

Ryan [00:12:07] Is it a contentious one, isn't it? I was was listening to Sam Bloom, your previous podcast, and the way she was talking really candidly about her disability. And I really respect that. And I don't think everybody can can come to terms with a disability and everybody's going to go on a different journey and meet their disability in different ways. The thing I do love about my disability, and this is going to sound a bit twee, might be that I think it's the community. We're very generous, we're very creative. We're problem solvers because we have to be. We're resilient because we have to be. And you can really learn a lot. And I think that's really wonderful. And I think the community is one of the real pluses of having a disability. I remember listening to you as well, talking about like being ahead of the curve something and often thought this myself to being a wheelchair user you sort of you get a preview of what the later life is going to be like because you're going to lose your mobility. Everyone's going to kind of get there eventually or you're going to lose your vision and your hearing or a combination of all of the above. And so you sort of have a different appreciation sometimes of of life because you like, I know what it's going to be like. And, and so you you can have more gratitude if you have the right lens on it sometimes amongst all the frustration, of course.

Peta [00:13:34] I agree with you. I think I am much more grateful for the life I have despite the challenges that I have. And I think overall that's made me a happier human, which I think is probably not widely recognised as disabled people being happier than non-disabled people. But I fly my happiness flag very proudly.

Ryan [00:13:57] Spot on, spot on. And I think that again, back to back to the preconceptions and expectations, there's this wonderful term, which is the the bigotry of low expectations. You know, the idea that people with disabilities can have a good, wonderful, flourishing farm life. And, you know, you and me and everybody else, we're out there to change that. And and I think we're I think we're getting there.

Peta [00:14:25] So is there anything you don't like about having a disability abroad?

Ryan [00:14:31] There's plenty, but I try not to focus on it. I the the positives for me, I guess they outweigh the negatives or at least I try and refocus. I'm. I'm an optimist and I try and take what I can from a situation, good or bad, and I try and learn and appreciate that. And sometimes that's not easy. And certainly this for frustrations and access is one of them. Expectations is another. Treatment by people can be can be difficult and challenging and frustrating and hurtful. And, you know, it is what it is. And I think trying to be as optimistic and positive as you can, then you can always look back and say, well, you know what I learnt from that? Or I took this from that or I it followed me, you know, because we're all what we're all forming every day as humans. So you might as well for me do something that's positive and optimistic, you know, otherwise, what's the point?

Peta [00:15:42] And not unlike many people, a disastrous travel story in particular makes for a hilarious story of the future.

Ryan [00:15:51] Yeah, exactly right. And who doesn't have the money? I think my partner has my one of my favourite ones. She was travelling in South America and she she landed and for whatever reason unexpectedly had to get off the plane. She's a wheelchair user as well. And they the staff said, okay, well look, will you you'll disembark last and will bring your wheelchair up. And as she was looking out the window and they were bringing her wheelchair up, except they had the commode and they were pushing the commode across the tarmac, bringing it up for her to get, very sadly.

Peta [00:16:29] The plate. Everybody else has got their designer luggage and you've got a commode.

Ryan [00:16:34] Yeah. So she had to correct them and do it and say, look, that's that's not what my day to.

Peta [00:16:42] What do you hope for in the future for people with disability?

Ryan [00:16:47] I think life gets a lot easier when you find your purpose. And this is true for those anyone, regardless disability or no disability. But if you can find something that really drives you in that you have a passion about, then that makes life so much richer. And you can really flourish when you have something to focus on and something that drives you and pulls you forward regardless of what happens. And that's that's what I wish for, for people with disabilities that everybody can find their find the thing that drives them.

Peta [00:17:20] Thank you so much. And I feel like we're kindred spirits in some ways. And we could have continued chatting for a long time more than we have. But thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.

Ryan [00:17:32] It's my pleasure.

Peta [00:17:36] As always. Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can I encourage you to leave writing and review? If you listen on Apple Podcasts or Hit Follow on whatever platform you're listening on. If you can think of a question or a guest you'd like me to have on the pod in the future, please let me know from my Instagram. My handle is at Peta Hook spelt PTA page. Oh. Okay. Via email. My email address is or via my website So until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye.


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