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Event Marks 15th Anniversary of the ADA

By Blondell Peterson
November 2005

left to right, Mark Ezell, Gordon Flake, Kathy Ahlmark, and Alicia Moore.
Left to right: Mark Ezell accepts a plaque from Gordon Flake, accompanied by Kathy Ahlmark and Alicia Moore. (Photo by Steve McCaw, Image Associates)

Mark Ezell, director of the North Carolina 100 Percent Tobacco Free Schools program, was the speaker for a disability awareness month event on Oct. 11. The Diversity Council Disability Awareness Committee sponsored the program entitled, "Bringing Your Wheelchair to Mt. Everest."

The event marked the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When Alicia Moore, chair of the Diversity Council Disability Awareness Committee, opened the program, she said the ADA ensures that people who are physically challenged can participate in all opportunities of life, live with dignity, work productively and achieve dreams. "You're in for a treat as we are joined together today and have the opportunity to meet a man with tremendous courage and inspiration," Moore said.

Ezell, born with Spina Bifida, said he believes that people with disabilities can participate in many activities if the technology and equipment are available. That's why he didn't hesitate to purchase an expensive climbing chair and begin a trek to Mt. Everest.

At a cost of $6000 and a month off from work, he set out to reach the base camp at the top of Mt. Everest. From March 15 to Apr. 15, 2003, he climbed the mountain with a group of 24 people-half with disabilities. Only two out of the group didn't make it to base camp, he said. One was a quadriplegic and the other was a professional climber who got altitude sickness. Normally only 10 percent of the climbers make it, according to Ezell, and the trick is to go slow.

When he wasn't in his chair, Ezell said he was carried in a wooden basket, modified for climbers who used wheelchairs. Teenaged boys, some weighing no more than 150 pounds, carried the climbers. The boys had nothing more than straps around their heads to secure the climbers, according to Ezell. "It's not like it had a seatbelt," he said. "These guys would stop and rest pretty often and sit us down on a ledge. You'd look down and it would be about 5,000 feet down."

Ezell gave an example of how people with disabilities and people without disabilities can work together. One of the team members, an engineer and a west point graduate, verbally instructed Ezell and other team members on how to repair their radio. "He couldn't manipulate the wires himself, because he was a quadriplegic." Ezell said. "We each had skills we brought to the table."

Ezell jokingly told the crowd that there was no yellow brick road or sign out front saying "welcome to base camp," and there was no Starbucks or theaters along the way. After 30 days, the group made it to base camp and enjoyed dinner and entertainment by members of the Sherpa tribe. In return the westerners sang old Hank Williams tunes for the locals, he said.

Ever the adventurer, Ezell said the three-day stay at the 17,600 feet high base camp, was about 2 ½ days too long since there was nothing to do.

A couple of things happened on the way down the mountain that reminded the climbers of the seriousness of their adventure, Ezell said. First, a member of a French expedition died of pulmonary edema. The second wake up call was the "taxi ride," as Ezell called it, from base camp to town.

"We were airlifted out on a vintage 1979 soviet army helicopter," he said. "The helicopter was hijacked by two soviet pilots from Aphghanistan who flew to Nepal and started this 'taxi service.' When you got inside you could see the bullet holes in the bottom that had been closed with epoxy," he said. "It was fascinating but a little disconcerting."

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