A Quadriplegic, a Specialty Van and a Lifetime of Adventures

Ella Castle

Kirk Williams loved racing mountain bikes and “enjoyed playing on anything that had a motor,” he said. Katie Renker, a photographer and musician, chained herself to big pink boats in climate protests and sang songs with refugee choirs. Mr. Williams graduated in 2009 with a degree in sociology from the […]

Kirk Williams loved racing mountain bikes and “enjoyed playing on anything that had a motor,” he said.

Katie Renker, a photographer and musician, chained herself to big pink boats in climate protests and sang songs with refugee choirs.

Mr. Williams graduated in 2009 with a degree in sociology from the University of Colorado in Boulder, “although after spending a semester abroad in Ghana, Africa, I knew my career path was headed towards travel, photography and storytelling,” he said.

Four months later, he crashed on a routine mountain bike ride and broke his neck — leaving him a quadriplegic, with no movement below his upper chest and limited sensation in his arms and hands.

“Other people with disabilities often don’t even think it’s possible to travel until they meet someone like Kirk, who’s an open book,” he added.

The details are complex, but the cost is what’s daunting. “The biggest hurdle in accessible vehicles,” Mr. Williams said, “is often the enormous expense that goes into modifying them to work for you.” Building accessible vans with mobility equipment can start at $30,000. But programs or grants can help offset costs.

He is proud of the van’s ample counter space and storage areas. “It’s really difficult for me to lean over and do anything without any core muscle functions,” he said. Pullout counters and drawers with adaptive cooking knives and can openers make things easier. Wide aisles for his wheelchair mean greater maneuverability. Incorporating proper heights and clearances was critical.

The van has an induction stovetop, a 12-volt refrigerator, a sink, a heater, insulation, operable windows, a bed and other amenities.

They have traveled together on multiple adventures, like scuba diving in Cozumel and four-wheel mountain biking on the steep trails around Boulder. “There are a lot of good people around the world that’ll help you in a pinch,” Mr. Downham said.

Mr. Williams realized that people with and without physical obstacles were curious about adapting vehicles. His goal is to build a website with information about his van as well as networking opportunities.

His wheelchair breaks down prejudices, he said. “People generally are excited and willing to help me any way they can,” he said. “When I take the lift out of the van, everyone seems to stop what they’re doing to watch me.” He’s used to that, knowing that people are excited to see what’s possible with a disability.

The coronavirus had kept Mr. Williams stuck in Buenos Aires for four months. But he was fortunate to have his brother, Clayton, with him. They recently returned to the United States to continue helping others.

His Instagram acquaintance, Ms. Renker, plans to move to Edinburgh to start her degree in transformative teaching and learning. After talking to Mr. Williams, she’s inspired. Her dream is to build an accessible sailboat and sail back to her childhood home in Sri Lanka.

“I wanted to change the world. And I will,” she said.

Things aren’t always easy, Ms. Renker acknowledged, but having people like Mr. Williams to help guide her helps.

“Adventure and freedom and independence were everything to me,” she said, with him in mind. “So, keep living like you do, so I know I can too.”

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