We had the good fortune of connecting with Ashley Olson and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Ashley, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?

I wanted to create an inclusive world for myself and others like me.

My life dramatically changed after becoming paralyzed at fourteen-years-old in a car accident that also killed my father, crippled my mother and injured my younger sister (older sister not in the car). Since my dad was a park ranger, my sister and I grew up camping and hiking, so after the accident my mom insisted we go to Hawaii for our first luxury vacation, as we had all been through hell and back.

Hawaii was the first time I traveled with my wheelchair, and though my family and I made the best of it, there were many access problems, like not being able to shower. We were promised an accessible room with a shower that I could roll into and transfer onto a bench, but instead we were forced to figure out that we could grab a pool chair and use it in a regular shower to somehow make it work. “Doesn’t America have the ADA?” was the obvious question we kept asking. Even as a teenager, it was very clear that Hawaii was not cheap, and because of this, I was baffled on why Hawaii and my hotel alone were not more accessible. Why can’t I take a shower or get into the pool independently as I do at home? My Hawaiian experience was far different than those who could walk. I was paralyzed but athletic. Money was always tight growing up, thus prior to the accident, I had been working all my life to get a basketball scholarship to Stanford. I had a scout and everything, it was a done deal.

Though I had clear learning disabilities, after becoming paralyzed, I shifted my focus from sports to academics and somehow, graduated high school on time and got a full scholarship to the University of Southern California, where I graduated there with honors. School does not come easy for me. After high school, a huge group of kids went to Greece. This was before the Olympics when there was absolutely zero access. We were there for two weeks and I saw ONE ramp, but I did it all–was carried up to the Acropolis (no elevator then), saw all the islands, and more. I LOVED Greece history, so being in Greece was dream even though there was no access. Most doors were often still too narrow for my narrow wheelchair, so I had to be picked up, the wheelchair taken a part and put inside, and then me placed back in it. There was never an accessible toilet.

While a college sophomore, a friend and I went to Berlin, and here I had a totally different experience from Greece. First of all, I had an accessible roll-in shower with a hand-held nozzle and grab-bars. Berlin also had some accessible train stations. Though the countries were not that far from one another, the comparison lit a fire in me. While working a 9-5 job after college, I was still taking trips when I could around the USA and continued to experience great as well as baffling accessibility. ‘I can’t be the only one perplexed by the lack of consistency,’ I’d would think. Finally, my constant curiosity and subsequent documentation of accessibility came to a conclusion—I needed to share this information with others so the next person doesn’t have to embark on hours, if not days, of research to find out exactly how accessible a destination or business truly is.

In the early 2000s, bloggers had already started, but the organization and formatting were technically limiting. Though I was able to find a few blogs talking about accessible travel, I had to read through every article to find what I was looking for. They also had a ton of personal details and stories that I didn’t always care to read. I just wanted to know facts so I could prepare and plan for a trip. I knew I could create something for the wheelchair traveling community that was easier to use, and so in 2005 I started building my first site on Dreamweaver. I had zero clue what to do, but every night after work I would work at it, one line of code at a time with no widgets or shortcuts. It was hard to say the least, but I kept at it because a world without something like this made no sense to me—I wasn’t the only person in the world in a wheelchair.

From the start, I didn’t want to design a website that solely featured my travel tips because for one, it was obvious that I couldn’t go and see absolutely everything on the globe. Secondly, I was well aware of the vast array of abilities, and interests for that matter, so a space where all could share was the platform I aimed for. It was clear that the topic of travel stood for something much bigger; it was about being able to functionally get around and reasonably do things just like everyone else. It didn’t matter how far or long a person needed to travel, we needed to know what kind of access would be there when we arrived. Through travel documentation, I raised awareness about inequality, discrimination, and a complete lack of consistency throughout the United States, despite the fact that the ADA is supposed to protect these rights.

Popular chain hotels, for example, had streamlined aesthetics but not access. A hotel chain could have an accessible shower setup with the bench placed within reach of the water, which is the obvious goal, but in the next town over or even just across town, the same hotel chain would provide a shower setup where water couldn’t be reached from the bench, let alone the soap or the towel rack on a shelf above the toilet. It seemed most hotels didn’t value independence or personal freedom for all their guests, and assumed that guests needing access always had someone else with them to help. On top of this, inadequate accessible features were being approved by construction workers and city planners. Raising awareness about the importance of and obstacles to accessibility became the backbone of my mission. However little or much access there was, I wanted to inform people so they could plan accordingly based on their needs. Furthermore, showing businesses what works, opposed to what doesn’t, provided a functional guideline for future endeavors. Getting angry and boycotting businesses solved nothing, but by giving good examples found worldwide, businesses could implement accessibility for their specific band and budget. As my business continued to grow, so did the positive response from the tourism industry—accessibility was improving.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I spoke a lot about in the first question, but I’ll say what I didn’t already.

Access effects everyone. I am so proud to sever the wheelchair traveling community. I am always learning and growing, which I love. I am where I am today because I didn’t give up on life, I pivoted and kept going. I focused on what I am able to do in any given moment, not the ideal or the end result. I see the possibilities, “It’s not what you look at. It’s what you see” (H.D. Thoreau), and though I acknowledge the rest, I don’t focus on it.

Positive visualization or “fake it until you make it” is 100% true. You don’t know exactly how or when you will arrive, just know you will and act like you’re already there and life has no choice but to catch up. One’s own conscious mind is incredibly powerful and the key to success. You must believe, above all other physically circumstances, opinions, or emotional barriers. This belief must be rooted deep in your personal truth, otherwise it’s easy to give up when it gets tough, which it will.

Don’t be afraid to be bold and put yourself out there. You personally and your idea will not be appreciated, understood, or accepted by all; don’t get blinded by this. Don’t get obsessed having your creation “right” or perfect because this is an illusion you can chase forever. Do what you can now. You never know where the path will lead, but you have to start with the first step.

Respect everything and everyone. Value everyone’s time. Abuse no one. “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi). Be patient.

I am proud of my Access 2 Parks Project, and know my dad would be too. I am proud that I wrote my first book, “Confined to Align,” in 2020 and published it in 2021 in order to reminded people of the precious, small joys of everyday life after feeling stressed from the COVID lockdowns. I am proud that I am the chief editor of a new online magazine called Accessible Journeys.

I am excited to be alive and for this ever-evolving journey.

Just because someone is paralyzed doesn’t mean they cannot walk or stand. Just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they need help. People in wheelchairs work full time, own businesses, travel alone, have babies, jump out of air planes, fly glider planes, dance, fish, and deserve equality.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I love being outside, so in nature we would go.

Not sure if this is for somewhere in Arizona or where I actually live.

I can revisit this after this is answered. I emailed Jon about this question.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would like to give a shoutout to the following:

1. Family + friends + partner
2. Mentor and friend, Bonnie Lewkowicz from the Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP).
3. The wheelchair traveling community
4. The Abilities Expo
5. New Mobility Magazine, especially Ian Ruder.
6. Christopher Reeve Foundation
7. Eckhart Tolle’s book, “A New Earth.”

Website: https://wheelchairtraveling.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wheelchairtraveling/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashleylynolson/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/wheelchairtrav

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WheelchairTraveling/

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/wheelchairtraveler08/videos

Other: Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/WheelchairTraveling/

Image Credits
Photos By: Ashley Lyn Olson, wheelchairtraveling.com

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