By Rach Cromer
Did you know July is Disability Pride Month? I didn’t either until my friend Nat posted about it on social media. Disability Pride Month is not new, it was established in 1990, the same year the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. I was surprised that this month has been around for so long and yet it wasn’t something that I see recognized, explained or even celebrated very often. After talking with the Anglin team, we decided we wanted to talk to Nat about why inclusive marketing matters.
I’ve known Nat since high school, and he is by far one of the coolest people I know, he excels in everything he does, is incredibly creative and talented, has a whole horde of cats, and also just happens to be an internationally ranked paraclimber. I had a great conversation with Nat and wanted to share his perspective on inclusion straight from the source. Below is our conversation on how impactful inclusion can be.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get into climbing? I’m Nat, and I’m a rock climber from Oklahoma City. It’s kind of the classic story of how I got into climbing: I went to college and, on a whim, tried climbing at my University wall. I was immediately hooked, and climbed frequently throughout college. Unfortunately, my climbing story took a turn for the worse in June of 2020. I ripped out some gear and fell 30 feet to the ground, breaking my T12, L1, L2, L4, L5, S1-5, left hip, and left wrist. I had multiple surgeries to correct everything, and was told I would never walk again without assistance. This was perhaps the perfect thing to say to me, because it motivated me to prove the doctors wrong and walk again. Now, I’m walking almost normally, although I am still paralyzed, and am a walking paraplegic.
Tell us why you’re passionate about representation.
I’m passionate about representation because it’s exactly what I could’ve benefitted from while in the hospital. Disability is something that sort of gets swept under the rug quite often because its ‘ugly’ or ‘scary’, but seeing even one person in a similar situation to mine would’ve greatly improved my mental situation. We like to joke in the paraclimbing community that able bodied people are really only temporarily abled, and we’re always recruiting. Can you tell us about your journey as a paraclimber and how it’s helped shape you and your perspective? My paraclimbing journey is kind of backwards from what people usually go through. I got back climbing after about three months, because it was the one thing I really wanted to do. For the first year or so post-accident, I sort of refused to call myself disabled because of the way it’s viewed in society, despite being fairly disabled. I climbed at a gym with only able-bodied people, and we just sort of ignored my paralysis or played it off as a joke. One day, I was scrolling through Instagram, and saw that USA Climbing was hosting paraclimbing nationals, and more importantly, that there were people there that had almost the same exact injury as me. I got in contact with one of them, and asked her if she thought my injury was enough to qualify, and her answer was basically, “Show up”, which I think is a great ideology for most things in life. So I showed up to the next year’s Nationals, and ended up winning my category. Since then, I’ve competed in two World Cups, taking 4th and 2nd, and won another National title. I’ll be headed to Europe in August 2023 to compete in the World Championships.
Paraclimbing has changed my outlook on so many things in life. As an able-bodied person, it’s really easy to ignore other disabled people because it’s a world set apart from your own. Paraclimbing opened me up to a whole new world of people, and also a whole new world of inequality. I am constantly on the lookout for ADA violations now, because lots of my friends would actually not be able to access things without the Americans with Disabilities Act . It’s also shown me a community that feels like home, and was so welcoming and helpful from the get go.
Why does inclusivity matter and why is it important to show representation in the media?
Representation, in all honesty, probably has saved my life. Climbing with able bodied people was fun, but I had such an extreme sense of loneliness that I tried to push down, because they could never truly understand what I was going through. If I hadn’t seen that post on Instagram, I would be a completely different, and most certainly depressed person. Acknowledging that I am a person with a disability has completely changed my perspective on life, as well as on my accident. There was so much guilt tied up in it that the community has helped me work through. And my story is not an outlier; the majority of my friends also have stories similar. Having a place at the table means lives made better and often, saved.
How do you think people can promote disability pride and visibility?
I think the easiest thing is just to listen to disabled people. Right now, we’re at the beginning of a revolution where disabled folx are taking back ownership of our community, but we still have massive strides to make. People still think that they need to talk for us because we’re ‘weak’ and ‘helpless’, but that’s really not the case. We can do things on our own, and we don’t need help from able bodied people unless we ask for it. I think it also helps you get to know disabled people for the extraordinary people they are, not just for their disability, when people stop talking for us. We really just want to be treated like anyone else, so listening to us and uplifting disabled voices is a great way to promote disability pride.
How do you think businesses can ensure that accessibility is considered in all aspects of an organization's operations, from physical spaces to digital platforms? In terms of physical spaces, ADA compliance rules are quite easy to look up, and make a giant difference in whether we feel welcomed or not. Making sure places have good parking, ramps, accessible bathrooms, and doorways is a major step in making everywhere accessible. In terms of digital accessibility, making websites welcoming for blind folx, as well as deaf or low mobility folx is pretty easy. Image descriptions underneath photos is a really easy option to keep blind people in the loop. There’s lots of other ways to make spaces more accessible, and this is just scratching the surface, so research into this topic can be a really great way to show disabled people that you care!
In your opinion, what role does media play in shaping perceptions of people with disabilities, and how can we work towards more accurate and inclusive portrayals?
Media historically has not been kind to us. It tends to portray us as weak, helpless people who you should pity, or, on the flip side, as inspiration for able bodied people. I think if you ever feel inspired by a disabled person going about their daily tasks, you should really stop and examine why you’re feeling that way. You wouldn’t do that for an able-bodied person, so why is a disabled person doing what they need to do to survive any different? I think it helps just to give disabled voices a spotlight in this day and age, because we’re out there, and we’re in every industry. Letting us take the wheel on how we’re portrayed will help immensely with shifting the perception of us in the media.
Do you have any advice on how to educate colleagues and clients on the importance of disability representation in media?
Honestly, I’ll say what I’ve said before: just let us speak for ourselves! This interview is a great example of shifting the power to a disabled person and letting them educate. It is good to be conscious that not all disabled people are as open as I am, so be kind and respectful when asking, and if they say no, then move on. Also, be sure to research beforehand for the basics. As much as I love talking about my spinal cord injury, it can get exhausting to have to explain paralysis and my disability to every stranger that wants to know. Having a background of knowledge on disability, accessibility, and equity can really help when having conversations like these. At the end of the day, we really just want to be treated like everyone else, so making strides toward that is the most helpful thing you can do.
After talking with Nat, I think it’s important, especially for our team, to be advocates for the disabled community. We can always do a better job at creating marketing tools, graphics and tactics that are thoughtful and inclusive, and help to give disabled voices a spotlight. As with everything we do, it’s important for us to continue to do thorough research, so we can better help our clients reach wider audiences and help bring a positive, inclusive outlook to marketing tactics.
About Nat: Nat Vorel is a walking paraplegic from Oklahoma City, OK. Almost three years ago, Nat took a 30 foot groundfall, breaking multiple vertebrae as well as a wrist. Nat quickly got back into climbing after relearning how to walk, and has been training hard ever since. This is Nat’s second year competing in paraclimbing competitions, earning a first place finish in RP3 at USAC Nationals last year, a fourth place finish at the SLC World Cup in May, and a second place finish at this year’s SLC World Cup. In addition to competing, Nat also is a Level 1 Certified Routesetter and works professionally as a setter for Summit Climbing Gyms. Nat has also achieved his Single Pitch Instructor Certification with the AMGA.