Alysia Kezerian is in an elevator at the Eiffel Tower, on her way to the top of Paris’s most iconic monument. She’s visiting from Vienna, Austria, where she’s studying abroad for a semester. Just one level from the top floor, Kezerian and her friends are stopped: She can’t continue with the rest of her group, because the Eiffel Tower isn’t handicap accessible beyond this point—and Kezerian is in a wheelchair.
The 23-year-old, born and raised in Danville, California, never expected to have to plan for this sort of obstacle while traveling. She hasn’t always been in a wheelchair. Kezerian was raised in an adventurous family—throughout her childhood she enjoyed family trips across the United States and to Europe. Curiousity about the world, she says, was deeply ingrained in her way of life.
In August 2015, Kezerian was taking summer classes at the University of Oregon, and every weekend, she and another adventure-loving friend would embark on an outdoor escapade. “There are seven ‘Wonders of Oregon,’” Kezerian says. “We were trying to hit all of them. We called it our ‘ExplOregon’ adventure.”
Ironically—as Kezerian put it—the pair was hiking the the Misery Ridge Trail in Smith Rock State Park when she fell. “I was climbing about 8-10 feet from the ground, when the rock I grabbed onto broke. I fell, hit a ledge, rolled 30 feet, and shattered a part of my vertebra.” When Kezerian tried to climb back to the trail, she realized that she couldn’t move her legs.
That moment was the end of Kezerian’s life as she knew it—but, she asserts, it wasn’t the end of her life.
“After a six-hour rescue process, I made it to St. Charles hospital in Bend, Oregon,” Kezerian says. “That’s where I was told that I had sustained a spinal cord injury and that I would never walk again.”
That moment was the end of Kezerian’s life as she knew it—but, she asserts, it wasn’t the end of her life. “While I was falling,” she says, “I was thinking about all of the things that I hadn’t done yet—all of the things that I hadn’t seen.” When she got the news that she would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, Kezerian thought, “This sucks, but it’s going to be OK. I’m going to make this work.”
And “make it work” she did.
After being released from the hospital, Kezerian spent 10 weeks at a rehabilitation center at Craig Hospital in Colorado. She underwent extensive training to strengthen her body and adjust to life in a wheelchair. It was there that she became determined to see the things she feared she never would as she fell from the ledge at Smith Rock State Park. And not only that—she’s determined to enjoy them, too.
When she returned to the University of Oregon just five months after her fall, Kezerian made the surprising decision to enroll in a study abroad program in Vienna, Austria. “I looked into the program and just felt confident that I would be able to do it,” she says.
Of course, she had worries about the difficulties of traveling abroad in a wheelchair. Will my chair fit through my apartment door? Will public buildings be accessible? Most of all, Will other students in my program want to travel with me? Kezerian was most afraid of being a burden to others, but she was confident that the skills she’d been learning at Craig Hospital wouldn’t just allow her to live independently—they’d also, eventually, enable her to travel. Having learned firsthand that life is both precious and unpredictable, she decided that “eventually” would mean “now.” And so, less than a year after her accident, Kezerian went to Europe in her wheelchair.
“I visited 10 different countries in eight and a half weeks in Europe, including Austria, France, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and Ireland,” Kezerian says. “And I had an amazing time. It felt like I was getting my life back.”
When she ran into inevitable roadblocks, Kezerian simply maneuvered around them. In Paris, her group of friends wanted to visit the Catacombs—which she knew would not be wheelchair accessible. She encouraged the group to go underground, and Kezerian went shopping instead. She had difficulty maneuvering the cobblestone streets of Prague, but she made an effort to explore the more easily accessible areas and made light of the situation. When she arrived in Bratislava to find a train station full of stairs with no ramps, she used the skills she’d practiced at Craig to make her way to the exit. “I got a good ab workout, to say the least,” Kezerian quips.
“When traveling—able-bodied or not—things aren’t always going to work out.”
“There were even some perks to traveling in my wheelchair,” she says. "We visited so many museums in Europe, which were free for me and a guest with a flash of my disability card. Also, my whole group was able to ride first class on the trains for the price of coach. It was kind of funny—I had gone into this trip thinking I was going to be a burden, and it turns out, at times I felt more like an asset."
When Alysia Kezerian found herself on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, unable to advance to the top with her friends, she admits she was disappointed. But she maintained the positive attitude and determination that got her to that point in the first place. “You have to be OK with things not going as planned,” says Kezerian, who recently returned from her second trip abroad post-accident (this time to England, Scotland, and Iceland). “I think for anyone who sustains a spinal cord injury, that’s already been instilled in you—I mean, nobody plans for this to happen. But when traveling—able-bodied or not—things aren’t always going to work out. You have a choice: You can be bothered, or you can go with ‘plan B’ and enjoy the experience.”
We asked Alysia and a team of professionals at Craig Hospital for their travel advice for wheelchair users. Read more here.
*Kezerian created an Instagram account to motivate other wheelchair users to venture outside their comfort zones and experience the world around them. Follow @wheeliesaroundtheworld for a look at the adventures of other wheelchair-using travelers.