Redefining What's Possible
"We believe that water is healing. We believe that water creates community and improves the lives of everyone." - Deborah Mellen, owner of the Impossible Dream catamaran and CEO of Impossible Dream, Inc.
Ahoy Maties! I just got back from sailing. Yes, I said sailing. It was my first voyage on the Impossible Dream—one of the only wheelchair-accessible catamarans in the world. It was a beautiful day for sailing and a perfect way to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To be perfectly honest, I was not that impressed with the vessel at first. A gigantic yacht at the town docks made all the other boats look like bathtub toys. I went in thinking there's no way that boat could handle all of us in our power chairs, we’ll probably be stuck in one place, and I won’t be able to see much. But when I started to board the 60-foot catamaran independently, I realized just how wrong I was.
The Impossible Dream was built to be accessible and sailed by wheelchair users. The ship is operated almost entirely by hydraulics. The steering wheel and the navigation equipment are positioned so that the captain can access the controls and drive it while seated. Paulina, the first mate, said there is at least one crew member who uses a wheelchair every voyage. To get below deck, the ship has two elevators. It also has two fully accessible bedrooms and bathrooms on each side of the boat making it possible for the whole crew to live on the catamaran. Two long ramps, one on each side of the boat, make it easy to get anywhere on the upper deck. There was plenty of room to move around and I could see everything. I positioned myself as close to the front of the boat as I could. I didn’t want to miss anything.
In 2002, Mike Brown, who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands, had the Impossible Dream built so that he could sail it independently. With only a photographer and a personal assistant aboard, he did just that — all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not sure, but I think that must be a world record. Ten years later, Mike sold the Impossible Dream to Deborah Mellen, the current owner of the vessel. She partnered with Shake-A-Leg Miami—one of the most accessible community boating centers in the world—to form The Impossible Dream, Inc., where they are based for the winter months. Their mission is dedicated to raising awareness of barrier-free design and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities through sailing. During the summer, they travel up the Eastern seaboard and stop in ports along the way to provide a sailing experience to disability organizations, such as Veterans groups, rehab centers, hospitals, and service organizations. As their slogan boasts, the Impossible Dream was built from the keel up to be 100% barrier-free—including cost. This amazing opportunity is always provided free of charge. Deborah’s goal for the future is to build a bigger boat to accommodate people who have larger wheelchairs. This would allow guests to experience staying on the boat overnight.
From Where I Sit…
Universal design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. Beside this definition in the dictionary there should be a picture of the Impossible Dream catamaran.
The ship’s owner, Deborah, said it best: “She is an incredible example of universal design. Everything that was needed to be done so that people with wheelchairs could run this boat made the boat more beautiful, not less.” The mixed-ability crew members work together to participate in both international and national races. They sail to bring awareness to their mission while emphasizing the importance of universal design to eliminate barriers and showcase the talents of people with disabilities.
I didn’t speak much for the first 45 minutes I was on the boat because I was so relaxed and calm. It was like meditation. Being on the water was really healing. After a while, I came out of that state and wanted to know what it would feel like with the sails up. And before I knew it, they were. We started to move faster, and I could feel the wind on my face—I loved it. I lost my hat to the ocean, but I didn’t care. It was fun.
The voyage made me think about what else could be possible. My disability wasn’t a big deal at all while I was on the ship because the environment was set up to accommodate my needs. We were all just people enjoying a beautiful sunny day on the water on the amazing catamaran, the Impossible Dream. What a great feeling.
(Photo credits: Dan Habib)