Kevan Chandler long dreamed of travelling. The problem was that many of the places he wanted to go weren’t wheelchair accessible.

The 31-year-Chandler has spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic neuromuscular disease. He has been wheelchair bound for most of his life. The solution that he and his friends hit upon was a specially-rigged backpack that they could use to carry him on while leaving his wheelchair home.

In 2016, Chandler and four friends, who switched off carrying the 65-pound adventurer on their backs, travelled through France, Ireland, and England over a three-week period with two filmmakers who documented the trip. The real legacy of the trip, though, was not the film. Instead, the trip sparked the creation of We Carry Kevan, a nonprofit working to change the way people with disabilities think about access and dependency by redefining accessibility as a “cooperative experience.”

“We believe that the world can become accessible if people are willing to be creative and courageous—courageous in the sense of not being afraid to try new things, and not being afraid to work together,” said Chandler. “We believe that’s where true accessibility comes from, rather than ramps, and elevators, and different things that foster this idea of independence. We believe independence is kind of a myth. What we really need is to be working together as a community.”

We Carry Kevan has not only shared the story of Kevan and his friends, but trained others to use the backpack they have developed. In cases where the backpack hasn’t been appropriate, they have brainstormed with disabled individuals to find other solutions that might work. They’ve also paired able bodied individuals interested in being carriers to work with disabled people.

Now, they are adding a new chapter to their story. They are planning a trip to China to work with Show Hope, a Nashville, Tennessee-based organization that has a network of care centers throughout China for orphans with disabilities.

The idea for the trip came during their travels in Europe. Ben Duvall, one of Chandler’s carriers, has a niece and nephew who were adopted from China and talked about the organization’s work.

Last February when Kevan was visiting friends in Nashville, he wanted to reach out to Show Hope. They happened to be in the same building as his friend. While having coffee nearby, someone from the organization walked in and recognized Chandler from a photo posted on Instagram that morning.

Show Hope has been supportive of the idea. We Carry Kevan will be heading to China in August with a total group of nine people. On the trip this time will be Chandler, four carriers, two filmmakers, a translator, and a project manager to coordinate their daily activities. There’s no plans for a documentary this time, but they will produce a web series. They will stop at Show Hope centers in Luowang and Beijing. They will also be visiting Guilin, where a friend has offered to put them up.

In addition to working with the orphans, the group plans to work in some sightseeing including trips to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City; and a visit to the Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist monastery in the province of Henan that is known as the birthplace of kung fu.

The crew will begin training for the trip this summer. One difference this time is that Chandler and his carriers will train together rather than separately as they did in the preparation for their trip to Europe.

The other difference this time is the purpose of the trip. For Chandler, the trip to Europe was to fulfill a personal dream. This time, it’s about giving back. “It’s not really about us this time,” he said, “which is a nice feeling.”

We Carry Kevan has set up a GoFundMe page to fund the trip. They’ve raised $1,300 out of a goal of $40,000.

Chandler believes that the notion that we are better off if we do things on our own has become ingrained in the culture. He believes there’s a false sense of pride that’s been fostered through a conflation of the notion of individualism with independence.

He points to an African proverb for a bit of wisdom that guides him saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

Chandler may not go fast, but he’s going far.

February 1, 2018

Photo: Kevan Chandler and friends

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