Accessible to all
Sally has committed her life to removing barriers for herself and others.
My friend Jeanne and I stood in a parking lot on the banks of the James River in Richmond as a small crowd gathered. Although sparsely attended, the groundbreaking ceremony taking place that day had attracted all the right people. Specifically, Richmond’s mayor was there, as were members of his staff, and volunteers from the James River Outdoor Coalition (JROC) and other local organizations concerned about the river.
Jeanne and I were there to honor Sally’s work advocating and fundraising for an accessible ramp so that the river could, in JROC’s words, “be accessible to all.”
“And it’s not just people who use wheelchairs,” Sally told the crowd, “It’s for people who are little unsteady on their feet, for parents with kids who have a disability. Whatever the reason, this ramp will allow them to get down to the water so they can kayak, fish, or just hang out.”
In everything she does, Sally immerses herself in the natural world. Whether it’s feeding the birds, creating a nursery for tadpoles in her backyard pond, or growing vegetables in her garden, she likes to bring nature close. But she feels most at home in rivers. Her greatest joy is shooting the Class 3 and 4 rapids in her kayak on the James or traveling to Idaho to go on a white-water rafting trip down the Snake River – an adventure that challenges even the most experienced rafters.
Sally is not like most other kayakers or river rafters, though. She does it all without the use of her legs. A teenage illness took away their use, so she navigates the world using an electric wheelchair, except, that is, when she lowers her body into a kayak. Then her arms and instinct take over as she bends the rushing water to her will.
Sally sees no barriers except the ones she hasn’t yet removed. She has successfully advocated for wheelchair accessible ramps along the James, including on one of the pedestrian bridges that spans the river in downtown Richmond. So even if a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility doesn’t care to run the rapids themselves, they can access the best viewing spot to experience the beauty of the river while they watch kayakers and rafters try their luck.
And Sally doesn’t limit her advocacy to making the river accessible. I first witnessed her using her voice for change at an annual meeting at our Unitarian Universalist congregation. Frustrated that our church was not living up to its commitment to welcoming and inclusion, she spoke words that will stay with me forever, “I don’t plan to come back to this church,” she said, “until I don’t have to go out to my van to pee into a bottle every time I need to use the bathroom.”
Boom! Sally’s words reverberated throughout the members, and as a result, the congregation raised the funds to build accessible bathrooms, an elevator to the lower level, and a ramped chancel, and add assistive listening devices in the sanctuary, so all could fully participate in the life of our congregation. When questions about accessibility come up in the congregation, it’s not uncommon for someone to recount Sally’s mic drop moment and remind everyone that she is watching.
I look to Sally as a model of what’s possible when impediments stand in my way. I admire her good-natured determination, steadfast advocacy, and unwillingness to yield her rights.
Sally has taught me that I have an obligation to remove barriers wherever possible, whether they’re physical ones like stairs, or the mental ones of my own making. She also teaches me not to let my limitations prevent me from engaging in the things I love. You won’t find me out shooting the rapids like Sally, but because of Sally, I find my own rivers to conquer.
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