Reprinted from The Oracle
By Ashley Bles
Few things can stop Kesha Pilot.
Two years ago a car accident tried when it cost her the use of her legs, but this summer Pilot proved not even that could get in her way. She went to Belize on a school marine biology trip, making her the first paraplegic to do so.
“Going abroad is going to be an experience for anyone,” Pilot said. “But for me it was an even bigger deal.”
Belize, a small country about 1,200 miles away from Henderson on the coast of Central America, is home to the second largest coral reef in the world. The trip is one of two that James Engman, professor of biology and department chair, leads abroad each summer.
Engman has been organizing these study abroad trips since 1999, but this was his first time making accommodations like the ones Kesha needed.
Fortunately, they had time to prepare.
To begin, there was the issue of money. Pilot would need to be accompanied by her husband Clay, which would double the cost of the trip. Engman granted her a full scholarship for the trip from a tropical studies scholarship fund granted to him by the Henderson Foundation.
The trip was heavily focused around snorkeling, which was another problem: how could they give Pilot mobility so that she could “swim” too?
The answer came in the form of a scuba scooter.
“Actually, getting the scooter was the easy part,” Engman said.
Pilot and Engman went to the disability resource center, where general legal counsel Elaine Kneebone arranged for the scooter to be purchased.
Once the scooter was in, Pilot spent hours in the campus pool practicing with it, wearing a snorkel vest that could easily be inflated or deflated.
Pilot said at first she was hesitant to deflate the vest but was glad she did.
“Being in the water was really liberating,” Pilot said. “I was able to go somewhere without my chair for the first time in two years.”
Getting the scooter (and its 20 pound lead acid battery) aboard the plane to Belize proved to be another challenge. After plenty of emails, phone calls and meetings with Delta Airlines and their disability hotline, Tropic Air Belize airlines and the director of the TSA at Little Rock’s airport, the scooter made it safely to Belize.
Because of her scooter Pilot was able to do everything others could do in the water, including swimming with rays, nurse sharks, sea turtles and giant grouper fish. Other activities while in Belize included cave tubing, exploring Mayan ruins and a scavenger hunt to learn about the lives of islanders.
The group focused particularly on studying the reef, at a marine protected area (MPA). Because of the level of protection the MPA provides, the coral is in better condition than at many other sites in the Caribbean. Organisms that are considered rare at other sites like turtles, manatees, sharks and large grouper can be easily observed at the MPA.
The Belize Tropical Research Education Center, the lab that hosted and housed the fourteen visitors including Engman and Pilot’s husband, has been hosting study abroad students for twenty years and Pilot was their first visitor in a wheelchair. Belize does not have the same accessibility requirements of the United States and there were no ramps and plenty of rough terrain to climb.
Pilot says the other students were very inclusive and helpful to her. They carried her up and down stairs, pushed her across sand and helped her in and out of boats. In fact, the only part of the trip that Pilot wasn’t able to join in on was cave exploration. Instead, she got to go zip lining.
Pilot said there were always people willing to help her, including locals who patiently carried her and her wheelchair (which they called a “wheelbarrow”) when needed.
Pilot said that although there were challenges and difficulties to overcome, she hoped she could help clear the way for others with disabilities to also be able to go on such trips.
Sarah Wolven, a sophomore business major from National Park Community College, also went on the trip to Belize and says Pilot’s confidence, willpower and smile were an inspiration during the trip.
“I wish every person in her situation could experience what she did with us, because it would show them that they can do it,” Wolven said. “She truly puts meaning to the words ‘yes I can.’”
Pilot said it’s not at all about feeling like a burden but instead taking the chance and getting out there.
“It really is liberating,” Pilot said. “Everyone really did a lot to make sure I was included.”
Pilot also said the lack of accessibility in Belize made her more thankful for her situation in the United States. Pilot especially wanted to thank the disability resource center for working with her, both on the Belize trip and in making her life on campus easier as well.
The study abroad trips for the summer of 2015 will be to the Galapagos Islands and Machu Pichu in June and Belize in July. The program is mostly HSU students but students from National Park Community College in Hot Springs as well as far away as the University of Panama have received scholarships and gone along in the past.