Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia, Rupa Valdez is also the founder and President of Blue Trunk Foundation, an organization and web site dedicated to a single goal–accessible travel for everyone.
I asked Rupa if she’d talk to me about her organization and its mission.
[Uma] I love the intersections of so many ideas in the Blue Trunk name—an old traveling trunk, the blue color of the international disability symbol, the trunk of the elephant god Ganesh who removes obstacles from the paths of people. Talk about how real-life intersections, symbolized in this name, are reflected in your mission.
[Rupa] People with disabilities or health conditions typically face many types of obstacles when traveling, from a lack of ramp access to smoke-induced breathing challenges to limited allergen-friendly food choices. Our ultimate goal is to be advocates for removing these obstacles, like Ganesh, but in the meantime, we hope to give people access to the information they need to make travel enjoyable.
[Uma] On your web site you have a page about your choice to use person-first language. Why does this matter?
[Rupa] The intention of person-first language is to emphasize that a person who has a disability is, above all, a person, with many other characteristics including but beyond disability. Some within the disability community find terms that are not person-first, like “autistic child” or “disabled person,” as reducing the individual to their disability. However, not everyone within the disability rights community prefers person-first language. This perspective comes from many ways of thinking. One is that it is often the environment which creates the experience of disability; for example, a person who uses a rollator might not feel disabled if there is short, properly graded ramp access because nothing is preventing them from equally experiencing the venue. From another point of view, using terms like “disabled person” is a way to reclaim that identity for the purpose of furthering the disability rights movement. Ultimately, we chose person-first language because we believe it is less likely to alienate the people we seek to reach.
[Uma] Your current web site is just a placeholder. I understand a full-service site is in the work. What are you aiming for?
[Rupa] Currently, we are approaching the final stages of building out our full website. This will allow people to search restaurants, tourist attractions, hotels, and other travel-related businesses based on the accessibility features important to them. Our site will first go live in Charlottesville, VA, and Madison, WI, and our ultimate vision is to become a global resource for accessible travel. We have been partnering with many organizations and individuals, both locally and nationally, to develop these resources and expand our reach.
As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of others to continue growing. If your readers are interested in learning more about Blue Trunk or contributing to our mission, they can visit us at bluetrunk.org.
Our blog is a place for sharing stories about traveling with a disability or health condition. We bring together many voices to share the personal experiences of a particular trip, from attending a Broadway show with a wheelchair to navigating airport security with liquid nutritional supplements.
[Uma] Thank you, Rupa Sheth Valdez, and much luck with this important work.
Trading e-mails with Rupa reminded me of how few picture books I have seen depicting kids with physical disabilities so I went to the library to see what I could find. In looking through the picture book shelves, I was taken aback to find only one that wasn’t beating me over the head with its good intentions!
Here it is:
Emmanuel’s Dream is the true story of Ghanaian athlete and activist Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, whose bike ride around his country made headlines, bringing people with disabilities out into the streets (some of them emerging from their homes for the first time ever!) to cheer him on. Sean Qualls captures the energy and movement of the story with clever shifts in perspective. In telling us about Emmanuel’s story and his life, Laurie Ann Thompson’s words leave traces in the mind: “being disabled does not mean being unable.”
As Rupa says, we need to avoid “reducing the individual to their disability.” Shouldn’t that also mean making people with disabilities visible–way more than we do now–in books for our youngest readers?