Bridget Jones talks to a tetraplegic who won't let disability get in the way of adventure.
In 2015, Jezza Williams spent nearly three months living in a tiny Toyota Yaris with a bunch of mates as they raced 26,000km from London to Mongolia and back again in the Mongol Rally.
Less than five years earlier, he had spent a year relearning how to breathe, eat and function on his own.
Williams was working as an adventure guide in the Swiss Alps when, in 2010, he "had a bit of a mishap" jumping from one of the canyons.
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He broke his C5 and C6 vertebrae, spent a month in intensive care, then 11 months in a Swiss rehab centre before returning to New Zealand to "restart" his life.
Now 44 and living in Waipara, Williams is classed as a high-level tetraplegic, which means he doesn't really have triceps, and is unable to move himself in and out of his wheelchair. But he is in a manual wheelchair that he pushes himself in as much as he can.
He has limited hand function, but can do more than you'd think — "there are tricks of the trade that you learn".
And he's on a mission to learn them all. As well as being the first tetraplegic to complete the Mongol Rally, Williams has also become New Zealand's first tetraplegic solo paragliding pilot.
Adventure is in his blood and no accident was ever going to change that.
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"When I had my injury, obviously I wanted to stay within my career in adventure tourism. I have all this expertise and knowledge, so it would be a waste to try to do something different. Just because you have an accident, it doesn't change your attitude, it just changes your physical being."
Back in New Zealand, Williams started looking into the outdoor industry, at what a body like his was able to do, and the answer was disappointingly clear: not much.
"I contacted a lot of companies, and asked what it would be like if I came in and did an activity, and I was pushed back a lot. So, I saw an opening and something that needed to be done."
The result was Making Trax, a non-profit organisation helping and educating adventure tourism operators to be more disability-friendly, opening up a new client base for them, and a world of opportunities for daredevils with mobility issues.
The website has a directory of companies that offer inclusive activities, as well as personal adaptive adventure consultants to help organise trips tailored to individual needs.
Williams has been nominated for a 2019 Attitude Award for his work on the travel platform.
"Our work means anybody can rock up to a certified company and do an activity. It means they can join in with their friends and family. It doesn't talk about a disability, it doesn't cost any extra. I just provide the company with the skills."
And in some cases, the confidence to be more inclusive.
"I think a lot of it is just a misunderstanding. They think they are going to hurt somebody or don't know how it's going to work, but if you've ever watched wheelchair rugby — that's pretty physical!"
Williams is, more often than not, the one who tests an activity - like rafting, skydiving, paragliding or sea kayaking, before it gets the official seal of inclusive approval.
He's also designed new or adapted equipment for certain activities, including a paragliding harness designed to lift the knees, and a wheelchair with skis for anyone wanting to try heli-skiing rather than just watching it.
"I just put my body on the line and I trial all the activities and see what I can do — I have a really high disability, so I'm a really good guinea pig."
Before his accident, Williams had taken a number of people with mobility issues canyoning and rafting in his work as a guide, and, almost a decade later, his ethos hasn't changed.
"That's what guiding is all about — opening your world and giving the client a safe, awesome experience. And though my world has changed a little bit, now I'm just pushing the limits, pushing the boundaries with getting companies aware of what's possible."
He is quick to point out the vast — and growing — nature of inclusive tourism. In his mind, the term doesn't just apply to those with disabilities, he also wants to make it easier for mums with prams or someone with a short-term injury like a broken leg. And, as the Baby Boomer market travels more, he says there will be more mobility concerns as they age. Williams' current campaign is to get more accessible campervans on New Zealand roads.
"It's about the big picture, and making New Zealand a destination — and the way you do that is by opening up as many products as you can, and letting people know about it."
His body might work differently now, but Williams' passion for adventure is as strong as ever.
"What this has taught me the most is that anything is possible," he says.
"I don't consider myself disabled, whatsoever. Other people might, and yeah I have a disability, but I'm definitely not disabled. I do a hell of a lot more than 90 per cent of people out there. It's mind over matter, really."
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH A DISABILITY
- Do your research and ask questions before you pack your bags. Talk to other people with mobility issues about their travel experiences, and don't forget to talk to your airline, travel agent, hotel and any activity operators about what you – and they – can expect. It may be easier to have these conversations over the phone so you get all the detailed answers you need.
- Ask your airline for assistance on flight days. There is usually no charge, but check with your airline. Make sure you allow enough time between connecting flights to avoid any stress and make sure you think about transportation during your trip.
- If travelling overseas, try to learn some key phrases in the language of your destination so you feel more comfortable asking for help.
- If you travel with medication, make sure it is clearly labelled and in its original packaging. It will make dealing with authorities much easier.
- Jezza Williams suggests the most important thing is to be positive. "Once you get there, and find a hurdle, it has to work - because you have to make it work. And every time it does, your confidence will build, and you'll be better prepared for it next time. Then your world opens up".
The Attitude Awards take place on November 22, and will be broadcast on TVNZ 1 on December 1.