They tested a seat so people with disabilities could ride a camel. Here's how it went.

On edge of the Sahara Dunes, a few miles outside of the Moroccan town of Merzouga, a camel named Omalise seems to suspect something is up.

On her back is a bulky contraption — a tall fabric seat held in place by metal piping and tied down with a tangle of unfamiliar straps.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.


It doesn't hurt, but it's not her usual saddle, and it's definitely not heavy enough to be a rider. Unclear what the attentive crowd of rapidly chattering humans around her wants her to do, she tries to stand up.

Within milliseconds, three trainers hustle over to coax the confused camel back to the ground.

"Of course, right now, the camel is a bit uncomfortable with the situation, but she’ll get used to it," says Mbark, Omalise's handler, through a translator. Mbark has lived semi-nomadically around the pack animals his entire life. For the past 12 years, he's worked in the country's booming tourism industry, facilitating camel excursions for visitors who want an up-close-and-personal introduction to the desert.

Today, he's spending his evening preparing his impatient camel to give tourists with disabilities the opportunity to experience the type of Hollywood epic-worthy trek through the desert sands they imagine when they dream of his home country.

Riding a camel has long been out of reach for travelers who lack full mobility, but Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants (MAT) hopes to change that with the advent of a custom saddle that mimics the action of a wheelchair on the animal's back.

The seat is the brainchild of Erik Neufeld and Jeremy Schmidt, who purchased the tour company in 2016 with the goal of providing their disabled clients access to the country's full range of historic sites, restaurants, markets, and natural attractions.

Getting a client onto a camel and over the dunes (a "classic Morocco" experience, according to the pair) is a problem that has perplexed them from day one — and one they believe they're finally getting close to solving.

Omalise. Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

"There were other parts of Morocco where we were like, 'Yeah, we can see how this will work accessibility-wise,' but the desert, that was constantly, 'How do we make this work?'" Neufeld explains.

In a few weeks, a colleague from Eastern Europe who studies the effects of equipment on a person's body is coming to test the saddle. To prepare for her visit, Neufeld volunteered to be the saddle's first human guinea pig.

In an effort to meet the deadline, Neufeld, an aircraft mechanic by training, is working furiously with Mbark, a local welder, and Schmidt, a physical therapist by training to make sure it can support a disabled rider without discomforting or harming accommodating animals like Omalise.

An early stage version of the seat. Photo by Erik Neufeld.

"We have Moroccans, Americans, Eastern Europeans all working together to make it possible for someone to experience the desert in a unique way," he says.

For the estimated 1 billion people worldwide living with a disability, traveling the globe is slowly becoming easier.

Beginning in 2014, the United Nations World Tourism Organization began holding conferences on accessible travel, establishing a set of guidelines and goals for nations to make their iconic sites more hospitable for disabled tourists.

In places like much of Morocco, where accessible infrastructure often coexists with ancient buildings, narrow streets, and impassable staircases, companies like MAT work to fill in the gaps.

"If we advertise something as accessible, people have certain expectations of what that is," Neufeld says. The company designs itineraries for its clients to maximize the amount they can accomplish independently — and organizes transportation and accommodation around their particular physical needs.

The camel chair is an ambitious step beyond MAT's usual expertise. The centerpiece of the device is an articulating seat that adjusts with the rider's body. Moveable armrests allowing for simplified transfer between wheelchair and seat, and a custom frame allows the rider to slide neatly into a traditional saddle.

Ultimately, Neufeld and Schmidt hope to make the chair available to Moroccan children with disabilities as well as their tourist clients, allowing many to experience the Sahara for the first time.

Still, it's a work in progress.

On a second try, Neufeld attempts to hoist himself into the saddle from a raised platform.

In a rush to climb aboard, the platform tips under his weight and Omalise, spooked by the activity, stands up again.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

After wrestling her down, Mbark and his team work to calm the anxious camel, tying her at the knee to prevent further surprises.

"If [Neufeld] falls, no one cares, but if our client falls, that’s a bigger issue," Schmidt notes, wryly.

Before finding MAT, Jane Romm, a teacher from New York, was skeptical of taking any sort of organized tour of Morocco.

Like many independent travelers, she prefers setting her own schedule to traveling on a set guided itinerary.

Since her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she and her family have continued to travel the world, developing new strategies along the way.

"My sons and I, we’re like a well-oiled machine the way we handle the wheelchair," Still, her husband's declining mobility made exploring the North African country on their own a daunting thought.

Ultimately, having a trained physical therapist on staff at MAT, and a driver who refused to leave her husband in the van once, even spending an evening running from restaurant to restaurant attempting to locate an accessible restroom — confirmed the value of a trip designed around their specific needs.

Jane Romm (C) and family in Morocco. Photo by Jane Romm.

"We looked at each other and were like, 'Why didn’t we ever do this before?" she explains. "What’s wrong with us? Why are we trying to conquer the world ourselves?'"

On his third attempt to test the chair, Neufeld finally slides from the platform into the seat. The handlers release the ropes and Omalise stands on cue.

As she trots nonchalantly along the sand, Neufeld rocks back and forth in the seat, trying not to engage the muscles in his core — simulating the potential effect of the ride on a client who lacks upper body strength.

Image by Eric March via Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants.

He sways unsteadily, like an exhausted club-goer who's had one too many, as Mbark and crew spot him from below. It's hard to watch. But he finishes the ride without falling.

For Neufeld, the test run was a "wild cocktail of exhilaration mixed with some anxiety" — a promising start, though a harrowing one.

"In many ways you could compare it to being on a roller coaster," he says.

Meanwhile, Mbark, observing from the ground, continued to noodle on prospective modifications.

"Because we have a new saddle here, it’s very common with new saddles that they don’t have good balance," he explains. "Once we figure out the balance issues, it will work great."

The crew hopes that adding more ballast to stabilize the seat, while making its metal frame less rigid and more adaptable to the fluid motion of the camel, will steady the chair.

After an exhausting hour of testing, Omalise sets off toward home on her own, as Mbark speeds off along a different route on his motorbike.

Neufeld, meanwhile, plans to make some modifications in the morning. Until then, he will continue risking his own body to make sure the project remains on schedule.

For those who live abroad, traveling to Morocco isn't an essential experience, and it's certainly not one available to everyone with a disability.

For those lucky enough to get the opportunity — Schmidt and Neufeld are working to provide far more than access ramps and bars on the toilet for travelers to a place they feel fortunate to call home.

"To go see the desert, to go see the ocean, to see the mountains [in the U.S.], you’re talking about multiple days and plane trips," Schmidt says. "Here you can do it all in the same week."

Riding a camel might not be something most people need to do. But life is more than things you need to do. So, yes, a few hours bopping around the desert is not necessarily going to make or break anyone's life. But for travelers with disabilities, a working accessible saddle could open the world just a little bit wider.

With a little luck, the camels will learn to see it that way too.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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