Sylvia Longmire is the definition of a boss. She is a writer, analyst on border security, an expert on the Mexican Drug war, travel blogger, owner of her own travel agency, and a single mother of two. She has traveled across the world, all while experiencing living with a chronic illness. Sylvia doesn’t allow her multiple sclerosis to stop her from achieving her aspirations. Having traveled to fifty-one countries, forty-three of those as a wheelchair user, she is normalizing the perception of traveling in a wheelchair. She is not alone in challenging the limitations of her body; 2.3 million people who live with MS. Sylvia has been able to adapt and achieve a life where her illness does not limit her goals. Sylvia was very passionate about her interactions with others while living in her chair. She provides insight into the treatment she receives because her physical appearance differs from the social norms:
“The hard part is with people… you have really shitty people and you have really amazing people, right…..And the amazing people are the ones that are willing to help, you see some people think that you want free stuff and you want to cut the line just cause you’re in a wheelchair”
Sylvia is an expert on Mexico’s drug war and border security, she served in the USA Air Force as an officer, and she was an AFOSI Special agent for more than eight years. She resigned from the Navy after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Sylvia continued to work for California State Fusion Center as a senior intelligence agent. She has lectured on terrorism in Latin America at the Air Force Special Operations School’s Dynamic of International Terrorism course. Sylvia’s work and credentials are highly impressive and interesting, and she continues to venture into new occupations after being diagnosed with MS.
MS is a chronic illness where there is damage to nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. MS is a progressive disease and with time it becomes worse. Sylvia started using a cane and eventually moved on to a wheelchair, but her life is as full of adventure as ever. Currently, she is a writer, runs two businesses, and a nonprofit. In addition, she has an accessible travel agency called “Spin the Globe.” One of the biggest struggles Sylvia faced was learning how to travel with a wheelchair. Sylvia’s goal in life is to not only see the world as a wheelchair user, but also to eliminate the fear and frustration that so many people with disabilities face when they think about traveling themselves. Sylvia’s writings regarding wheelchair accessible travel have been featured in The New York Times, New Mobility magazine, the Lonely Planet, and Matador Travel Network, as well as her blog.
Sylvia talks about how she goes to NextStep Orlando because lots of her friends are there. It is a social experience, as well as a physical. NextStep allows her to interact with her friends and trainers. She describes going to the gym as a fun experience that allows her to work out while laughing and enjoying herself. Although Sylvia does travel, she does much of it alone. So, NextStep is a fun place she feels comfortable to make friends. Sylvia explains:
“I mean, [going to NextStep is] kind of my social life. It sounds kind of weird, but again, I have a very unique lifestyle because I’m gone all the time when I’m not traveling and I’m home, I’m working at home.”
“When I go [to NextStep], I have a really fun time because I’m talking to everybody and they are so nice and laughing and having a good time. So even though I’m working out [and] it is exhausting, I actually looked forward to going to the gym.”
Sylvia discussed how, besides her main job, she also runs a travel blog. When working with social media, it is important to have a brand for yourself. She talked about her experience of taking her headshots for her professional life, and her internal debate about whether or not to include her wheelchair into the photos. It was impressive how much she was able to incorporate her wheelchair as part of her brand and use her strengths to her advantage. She explained:
“I’m a writer and an analyst on border security and the drug war in Mexico. So that, the good thing about that is, is that it really doesn’t involve anything physical. So it’s all computer, it’s all online and all writing. And then about three years ago, I became a travel blogger–an accessible travel blogger. And about a year and a half ago, I started my own travel agency.”
“I realized like because of my work, my work is my brand, my brand is my wheelchair and the name of my company is “Spin the Globe.” You know, I’m all about accessible travel. So if I need to comment on a Facebook group about something, about accessibility, and people look at my profile photo, they look at me and they assume that I could walk and then I’m probably going to be healthy.”
Sylvia is aware of her physical appearance and how people treated her differently because of it. She is also very hip and cool, with purple streaks in her hair. From interviewing her, we gathered that she had given a lot of thought to how her physical appearance has affected how people treat her. She talked about how she enjoys going to NextStep because she is able to interact with others casually, without thinking about her disability. She explained:
“[I wish people would] pretend that the chair’s just not here . . . A lot of times I’m wondering when people, random people say stuff to me, if I wasn’t in the chair, would you just randomly go up to a stranger and ask them what’s wrong?”
“I look healthy. So if I’m sitting on a couch and my chair was nowhere in the room, you would have absolutely no idea that there was anything wrong with me. Other folks with different disabilities, it’s a different story.”