Abilities Expo offers ‘wealth of knowledge’ for people with disabilities

Ebele Uzamere’s children had not planned on tackling a 25-foot climbing wall on Saturday. But when they arrived at the 2022 Abilities Expo at the NRG Center and saw other kids in wheelchairs waiting to go up it, they suddenly wanted to try.

Uzamere helped strap each child into a safety harness. She buckled up their portable ventilators. Then they suddenly became mountain climbers as a system of ropes and pulleys raised them into the air. Onlookers cheered when they victoriously rang a bell near the top of the wall.

Long after their climb ended, the children were still smiling.

“Every time I’ve come here, I’ve gotten something that’s been helpful,” said Uzamere, whose son and two daughters have spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that attacks nerve cells that control muscle movement.

The wall is one of the highlights of an event that has brought a wealth of new experiences and knowledge to people with disabilities for more than 40 years.

The Abilities Expo, which is free and runs until Sunday in Houston, offers workshops on topics such as accessible travel destinations and lessons about service dogs. Attendees can watch wheelchair fencing, rugby and lacrosse. About 120 exhibitors showcase products and new technologies.

“It’s a cool show,” said Houston professor Lex Frieden, a longtime advocate who helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act and attended the exposition Saturday. There’s no shortage of challenges for people with disabilities, he said, but the expo helps raise awareness and open possibilities for people.

“They sure are doing a lot for the community,” Frieden said.

The Abilities Expo was launched in 1979 by Richard Wooten, a polio survivor in California who was having trouble finding products designed specifically for people with disabilities.

“I thought, ‘If I’m having problems, certainly others are as well,'” Wooten told the Los Angeles Times in a 1993 article.

Wooten later sold the rights to the expo and it changed hands over the years until it was bought in 2008 by 5Net4 Productions, a firm owned by Lewis Shomer and David Korse. With a long history in the events industry, the pair expanded the Abilities Expo from two to seven cities.

“People find products here that they never even knew existed, and it changes their lives,” Shomer said. About 1,300 people attended the expo Friday, Shomer said, and he expected more than 2,000 to arrive Saturday.

Mountain climber Mark Wellman, who designed the pulley system that raised Uzamere’s children into the air at the climbing wall, said he wanted to give everyone a chance to experience the freedom of climbing and open their eyes to what’s possible.

“There is life after spinal-cord injury,” Wellman said. “There is life after amputation. There is life after head injury. It’s all about having a great life.”

After a climbing accident paralyzed him in 1982, Wellman said he never lost his love for the outdoors. In 1989, he made history as the first paraplegic to scale the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

“This wall is their El Capitan,” Wellman said as a line of children waited their turn to climb it. “Twenty five feet is a big deal for them. We’re getting them out of their comfort zone.”

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