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Disability, challenge, and discovery: for some people, life is not about living within the accepted boundaries of society-but about pushing the limits.

As long as man has inhabited the planet, he has sought to challenge himself and push his personal envelope. Yet, with each new challenge comes adversity. And from adversity, man has learned to adapt and grow. For the people behind an organization called No Barriers, life is a unique mix of adventure, challenge, and making the seemingly impossible into reality.

During winter 1982, a 17-year-old rock and ice climber named Hugh Herr became trapped in a blizzard while summiting New Hampshire's Mount Washington. Fighting for his life, Herr battled extreme cold and near whiteout conditions for three days before losing both legs to frostbite and tissue damage sustained from the prolonged exposure to the harsh conditions. Despite coming close to death on that New England mountaintop, Herr began dreaming of finding a way to return to his chosen sport.

Now, more than two decades later and with a doctorate in engineering, Herr is director of the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge). He dedicates his life to designing biomedical devices for treating physical disability and advancing technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine. Along the way, he invented prosthetic devices that allowed him to climb once again and earned a reputation as one of the world's most innovative rock climbers--with or without a disability.

Also in 1982, an accident on his descent of the Seven Gables in the John Muir Wilderness left mountaineer Mark Wellman paralyzed from the waist down. Rather than shy away from the mountains that took away his ability to walk, Wellman began exploring how technology could help him climb again.

Seven years later, Wellman made history by being the first paraplegic to climb the 3,300-foot rock face of El Capitan (Yosemite National Park, Calif.). Using a unique, arms-only climbing system he designed with long-time climbing partner Mike Corbett, Wellman completed an estimated 7,000 pull-ups over seven days en route to the top of the infamous vertical wall. A two-time Paralympian and avid alpine and nordic skier, Wellman also became the first paraplegic to ski unassisted across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, using a signature ski design.

On May 25,2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind man in history to reach the summit of the world's highest peak: Mount Everest (Nepal/Tibet). And on September 5, 2002, when he stood on top of Mount Kosciusko in Australia, Weihenmayer completed his seven-year quest to climb the Seven Summits--the highest mountains on each of the seven continents--joining only 100 mountaineers who have accomplished this feat. In the last five years, Weihenmayer has gone on to lead numerous expeditions, including one to help the first blind African reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. He also led a group of blind Tibetan teenagers on an unprecedented 21,500-foot climb on the north side of Mount Everest.

Disability's Changing Face

From a worldwide population of 6.6 billion and a United States population now more than 300 million come pioneers like Herr, Wellman, and Weihenmayer. While their stories may seem extraordinary, they are not uncommon in a world where disability rates are skyrocketing.

It is widely reported that more than 3 million amputees are in the U.S. alone. Worldwide the number is estimated at more than 75 million. Diabetes is the number-one cause of limb loss, followed by trauma and cancer. Sadly, the numbers will increase as disease, war, and trauma become more prevalent.

Statistics published by the Travis Roy Foundation state that more than 2 million people worldwide have spinal-cord injury (SCI). Between 250,000 to 400,000 live in the United States, with more than 13,000 new cases emerging every year. The foundation further notes that more than half of those are individuals between ages 16 and 30, a testament to the fact that secondary to motor-vehicle accidents, the most common causes of SCI are sports-related traumas, falls, and accidents incurred by an active younger population.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 148 million people worldwide are blind or have visual impairments. This translates roughly into an overall blindness rate of 7 per 1,000. More than 90% of all blind individuals live in developing countries.

As the world's population continues to increase, the incidence of people living with a disability will rise as well. In developed as well as underdeveloped nations, the economic and social costs associated with disability are staggering and continue to spiral upward. Despite legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and an international focus on eliminating disease and accommodating disability, a critical need exists to do more to serve this population.

An Idea Comes to Life

In a project perhaps better suited for the script of a Hollywood adventure film, Herr, Wellman, and Weihenmayer came together in 1997 at the base of a 1,000-foot rock tower in Moab, Utah, to undertake a climb that many people labeled impossible. Never having worked together in any capacity, the team assembled at Wellman's urging to put into action an idea the paralyzed climber had been contemplating for some time.

Wellman reasoned that by focusing on ability and using each team member's strengths, a double amputee, a paraplegic, and a blind man could safely and successfully climb together, without any outside assistance and support. He believed barriers exist mainly in the mind and, with proper technology and technique, an all-disabled team could complete what society labeled a crazy fantasy.

Why would three men who had already faced life-changing adversity put themselves at risk again simply to ascend a five-pitch rock face? The climb would not break any records, nor would it bring them newfound fame and fortune. According to Wellman, the team simply wanted to remind society that man's desire to push his physical, mental, and psychological limits cannot be deterred by trauma, disease, and disability. Their climb was a success, and, somewhere on the rock face, the idea for an organization came to life.

Opening Doors to a Full Life

Six years after the trio succeeded on their Moab climb, Herr and Weihenmayer joined forces with Wellman and Jim Goldsmith, a retired businessman and passionate outdoorsman, to form No Barriers. The organization aspires to use innovative ideas, approaches, and assistive technologies in combination with the human spirit, to create opportunities for all people to live active and full lives. At the core of their efforts is the belief that No Barriers is a state of mind. It is the attitude of reaching out and finding ways to accomplish one's dreams, no matter what it takes.

According to Weihenmayer, No Barriers brings together people with different disabilities who possess their own unique goals and dreams and who share a common desire to develop imaginative solutions.

"No Barriers isn't entirely about the outdoors," says Weihenmayer, "No Barriers means different things to different people. Since the outdoors is a powerful environment for self-discovery and realizing potential, we use the natural world as a springboard for shattering barriers of any kind."

"At NO BARRIERS FESTIVAL 2007, you will find novices who are trying an activity for the first time and experienced, world-class leaders who are looking for the latest approach to help them gain the knowledge to become better at what they do," says Wellman. "You will also find those who believe that through better science comes better life. These forward thinkers take examples from life experiences and develop products that permeate everything we do. No Barriers is for everyone, no matter their age, ability, race, experience, or disability," he adds.

Herr agrees: "This is such an exciting time in history. There are so many core technologies now available that if we integrate them, we will really see a paradigm shift in this domain of healthcare. No Barriers is about improving the quality of life through spirit and technology and giving people the necessary tools to pursue their dreams."

Along with founders Goldsmith and Wellman, Herr, Weihenmayer, and Malcolm Daly-president of an outdoor-gear company who lost a leg to an accident on Alaska's Mount Hunter in 1999--are directors of No Barriers. They have a zest for opening doors previously closed and a desire to share new pathways with the world.

Through their actions, it becomes clear that when technology is combined with a passionate and unyielding human spirit, what some people might label as impossible is not only possible but readily achievable.

Says Goldsmith, "We hope to export one simple idea throughout the world: In life, there are No Barriers."


From June 28 to July 2, 2007, the NO BARRIERS FESTIVAL 2007 will take place in Squaw Valley, Calif. Its goal is to share cutting-edge techniques and technologies that enable people with challenges to live as actively as possible and to break through their own personal barriers. Following the successful NO BARRIERS FESTIVALS 2004 and 2005 in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites, the decision was made to bring the event to the United States to showcase the natural beauty and recreational potential of the region and share the mission and message of the organization with a new population.

"The most important aspect of No Barriers is the concept," says Weihenmayer. "We can take this concept anywhere. We can go around the world and create opportunities for people. By pushing the limits of technology and motivating people to reach just a bit farther, we can nudge society forward and create a world of visionaries, believers, and pioneers."

The NO BARRIERS FESTIVAL 2007 will be larger than previous events and will include disabled veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. The festival will offer a unique combination of a scientific symposium, "Technology Meets Physical Disability," led by researchers and technologists, to present the latest breakthroughs in technology; an equipment fair to exhibit state-of-the-art adaptive equipment; and speaker and film evenings to feature some of the world's most accomplished outdoor adventurers, modern-day pioneers, and award-winning films. Participants will have many opportunities to network with scientists, technologists, manufacturers, and accomplished leaders with disabilities.

Some of the scheduled highlights of the NO BARRIERS FESTIVAL 2007 seem more like science fiction than reality:

* A blind technologist leading tours for blind people using only a talking Global Positioning System

* Notable athletes with amputations demonstrating revolutionary prosthetic legs with computer-controlled knee and ankle joints that enable above-the-knee amputees to walk for the first time

* Inventors demonstrating self-balancing vehicles that enable paraplegics to navigate rocky trails

* Disability organizations leading adaptive rock-climbing, scuba diving, kayaking, and mountain biking

About No Barriers

No Barriers USA is a not-for-profit organization as designated under Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. No Barriers assumes that each person, regardless of age, state of mind, or physical condition, has a thirst for adventure and a hope for the future that is worthy of igniting.

No Barriers is not just a name. It is an attitude.

To learn more about No Barriers and NO BARRIERS FESTIVAL 2007, call 415-381-4160 or visit
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Author:Savicki, Mike
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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