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Q&A: Improving Access in Rural Alaska with Ms. Wheelchair USA Contestant Kristie Lent

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Alaska has always seemed enchanting to me, and people who know me know that I’ve been completely obsessed with dog sledding since 2019 when I drove a team of my own through the sparkly forests of northern Wisconsin. (Not Alaska, but about as close as I can easily get.) Of course, it’s easy for me, a person without physical disabilities to frolic in the snow without a second thought.

When Kristie Lent, an Alaskan contestant in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant, reached out to our newsroom wanting to speak about the experience of disabled people in rural Alaska, she invited me to consider these spaces in an entirely new way.

Kristie enjoys all of the same activities I do — from dog sledding to skiing! — it just looks a little different for her. Enjoy our conversation about the glamour of pageants, hitting the hiking trails in the summer, and improving accessibility in rural areas.

Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: You’re the first person to represent Alaska in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant. (Although I read that another woman did represent the state in Ms. Wheelchair America, which is a similar program.) First, I’ve never visited Alaska although it’s been on my list for many years. What do you love about your state? — it’s one of the most rural in country. What was it like growing up there?

Kristie Lent: I actually grew up in Oklahoma, not Alaska. In 2000, after graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Tulsa, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska. My parents moved to Anchorage when I was in college because of my dad’s career as a professional helicopter pilot. Honestly, I didn’t think I would enjoy living here and told my parents I would only stay for one year before moving back “home.” That was nearly 22 years ago, and I’m still here! I often get asked why I live in Alaska. Honestly, I think it is because of all the beautiful people I have come to know over the years and the rich and unique culture that is so different from the rest of the country. Alaskans are very independent and proud and often self-reliant. Many Alaskans choose to live “off-grid” and get away from the big city of Anchorage. We take care of each other. It’s one thing I love most about Alaskans. It’s a big state with a small-town, take care of your neighbor-type feel.

Lent in her pageant regalia against the snowy backdrop of Nome, Alaska. (Photo provided.)

I’m an avid outdoor photographer, and there is no place like Alaska to photograph. I love seeing and photographing the Northern Lights and the Iditarod and the Iditarod sled dog race in the winter. The summers in Alaska also can’t be beaten! I love staying outdoors with the sun still shining until well after most of the lower 48 has already gone to sleep! I love living in Anchorage because of its vibrant downtown district (something I didn’t experience growing up). Alaska has a large tourism industry, and as someone who loves to travel and meet new people, I enjoy living in a “tourist” state.

DY: What inspired you to get involved with this pageant?

KL: My journey as Ms. Wheelchair Alaska is a bit of a long one. I grew up watching the big national pageants on TV with my mom and best friend. It’s a tradition we still carry out today. I have several cousins who participated in pageants. However, I never really aspired to be in one myself, mainly because I felt my disability would be a disadvantage. When a friend of mine who lives in New York told me about her experience with the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I am always looking for ways to expand my advocacy efforts, and I feel this pageant helps do that. My parents taught me to advocate for myself so I could communicate my needs when they weren’t around. It is a skill that has served me well, and I try my best to mentor and teach it to others who may be struggling. I entered the pageant because I wanted to try something outside my comfort zone. In addition, I want to bring more awareness about disability-related issues, like accessible and safe transportation, to a broader audience. I am grateful to the Ms. Wheelchair USA organization and The Dane Foundation for giving me this opportunity!

DY: I realize it’s hard to generalize, but what have you observed (and felt yourself) to be the experience for Alaskans with disabilities? What sorts of challenges do they face? Is there hopeful progress being made?

KL: I would first say that every state has unique challenges surrounding accessibility related to climate, location, and architecture. Alaska is not much different. Alaska is a beautiful state, and I enjoy living here. However, individuals who can’t move around easily because of mobility impairments or other disabilities often have a harder time enjoying all that Alaska has to offer. For example, everything from local parks and trails, dining, and entertainment to state events like the Iditarod and state fair can be difficult to access when you have a disability. Moreover, Alaska is considered a “bucket-list” destination for many. As a result, a large number of tourists are over the age of 55. Therefore, our state and tourist attractions should be accessible to all visitors to Alaska year-round.

Every community does seem to handle accessibility problems differently. For example, some communities like Anchorage are better equipped to address accessibility issues. In contrast, many rural communities and villages aren’t connected to the road system and are more remote. Modifications and new construction to make things accessible can be cost-prohibitive, as materials and equipment must be shipped or flown in. Many locations are only available via air, making it crucial that we have accessible air travel both within and out of state. This is especially important since many Alaskans with disabilities need to travel to the continental United States for medical treatment. Air travel can quickly become a necessity. Which in and of itself is fraught with logistical problems, including the risk of having your wheelchair damaged while flying.

As Ms. Wheelchair Alaska, I have had the opportunity to meet people from across the state and talk about accessibility issues. Statewide issues experienced by Alaskans include inadequate snow removal — sidewalks and parking lots are often piled with snow. Older buildings are often entirely inaccessible, and new construction sometimes treats accessibility as an afterthought. Finally, accessible transportation is a huge problem in Alaska. While I’m privileged to have a wheelchair-accessible van, some Alaskans cannot participate in family events and their community because they lack wheelchair-accessible transportation.

Alaska is making progress toward more inclusion. For example, Anchorage is fortunate to have a wheelchair-accessible bus system and a Para-Transit bus system. Alaska also has a strong disability advocacy community, including several Independent Living Centers, the Governor’s Council on Independence, and the Disability Law Center of Alaska.

DY: In Alaska, I understand cars, and snowmobiles are a necessity. But they aren’t always designed for accessibility. What accommodations help you get around?  

KL: Several years ago, thanks to many donations from the mushing community, family, friends, and even strangers, I got an Action Trackchair. It’s an all-terrain wheelchair that can traverse snow, sand, grass, mud, and even shallow waters. I can now go on more hiking trails than before, and I can easily maneuver through pretty much any snow condition. It is definitely an improvement compared to maneuvering through the snow in my manual wheelchair. My Trackchair has opened up a whole new area of Alaska that I never thought I would ever be able to see except in pictures!

One of the coolest features it has is the ability to go into a standing position, which allows me to access and see things better. In addition, it is a health benefit because it allows me to get better circulation in my legs. Another piece of adaptive equipment is a pair of skis we got this past winter from a company called PolarSkis. We got them just in time for our trip to Nome to see the finish of the 2022 Iditarod. They attach to the wheels of my regular wheelchair and work similarly to cross country skis. They are very easy to travel with and get on and off. It made our trip much more enjoyable. I never imagined I would be able to get down onto the Bering Sea ice, but thankfully I was able to do just that with these skis!

On an everyday basis, I use a manual wheelchair with power-assist wheels. These wheels are designed with a battery that can assist my ability to push my chair, thus allowing me to save my strength in my arms. Last week, I received my new wheelchair with an updated version of these wheels, including two new features, remote control and cruise control. These improvements are an example of the advancements in technology for those with disabilities.

DY: I’m also curious about outdoor spaces in general. I know Alaska has some really breathtaking national parks, and when I was at Glacier last summer I was surprised and pleased to see the boardwalks that have been installed on a couple of really beautiful hikes. How do you and your community enjoy the outdoors? Are there things rural communities can do to make these spaces more welcoming and accessible?

KL: Many people in Anchorage enjoy outdoor activities, including hiking and camping. Anchorage has a great trail system. There are four main multi-use trails—the Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, the Campbell Creek Trail, and the Ship Creek Trail. They connect to each other to form a 32-mile bike loop, an almost-complete urban greenway that is, when viewed on a map, in the shape of a moose! These trails are paved in most sections, making it much easier for those in wheelchairs to use. The paved trails connect to mountain bike trails which connect to Chugach State Park, an alpine tundra park with mountains and breathtaking views. That’s something very few states have to offer. So getting out on these trails is one of my favorite things to do in the summer.

In Anchorage, we have a facility called The Dome that I like to use when the weather is less than ideal (especially in the winter) because it has an indoor track. Over the last couple of years, I have challenged myself to stay as physically active and fit as possible. I try to get outside or use the track and do a minimum of 2 miles a day in my wheelchair. My goal is to complete the Moose Loop this summer. I have completed roughly half of it so far.

Alaskans also love to ski, and those in wheelchairs are no exception. Alaska has an adaptive ski program through Challenge Alaska, a nonprofit organization providing opportunities for Alaskans with disabilities to participate in adaptive sports, therapeutic recreation, and education. In addition, I’ve participated with Challenge Alaska over the years in various activities. This past year, I have been rock climbing and cross-country skiing, and I am currently learning para-archery.

While many of Alaska’s popular tourist spots and local hangouts try to be accessible, it has been my experience that inclusion and accessibility are an afterthought. I would like to see communities and groups who want to make things more accessible include those with disabilities in the initial planning and execution. For example, a new trail in Wasilla, Alaska, specifically inspired and dedicated to a woman in a wheelchair and promoted as ADA accessible, was designed with loose gravel. At the grand opening ceremony, several other wheelchair users in attendance, including myself, pointed out that the slope was too steep and demonstrated the difficulty of pushing a wheelchair through loose gravel. No wheelchair users, including the wheelchair user to whom the trail was dedicated, were consulted before completing the trail.

Another example is the Russian River Falls in Alaska. The trail leading to the falls is often advertised as easy and accessible. However, when my husband and I went a few years ago to try out this trail, we discovered this wasn’t exactly the case. Instead, the trail consists of almost three miles of loose gravel-laid trail. In my opinion, this is one of the worst materials to use. Wheelchair front castors often get stuck or dug into the gravel, making it hard to push. If I hit a rock or gravel at just the right angle or speed, I lose my balance and get thrown from my wheelchair. This happens more times than I can even count. It is one of the biggest barriers to local travel that I encounter. After a couple of hours of hiking, we got to the trail’s end to the viewing platform for these beautiful waterfalls. However, I couldn’t use this beautiful platform adequately because it was not wheelchair accessible; much of the railing blocked my view from a sitting position.

As mentioned previously, Alaska has a few trails with boardwalks or paved trails. I would love to see more areas implement these, especially in rural Alaska. Finally, I would like to see more family restrooms in general. Whether at businesses, campgrounds, or rest stops, family restrooms help everyone, from mothers with children and the elderly to those with disabilities who need extra assistance from a caregiver.

DY: In general, my perception is that rural towns are behind in terms of accessibility. Is this your experience too? Forgive my naiveté, but I wonder if there is legislation or policy that could address this? How can these places do better?

KL: Yes, I would say that rural Alaska is behind when it comes to meeting the needs of those with disabilities. Although my experience visiting rural Alaska is limited, I do work with many individuals from these areas. The lack of accessible housing and accessible transportation top the list of concerns I hear. In addition, from my experience, there is a lack of accessible lodging for those visiting these communities. For example, Nome has one hotel that has an ADA-accessible room. Given how popular Nome is during the Iditarod, this room is always booked a year in advance.

I do want to give a shout-out to Denice Gilroy of Nome, Alaska. She is the CEO of Arctic Access, an independent living center that serves Nome and the surrounding area. Over the last two decades, her advocacy work has greatly improved how accessible Nome is.

When I traveled to Nome for the 2022 Iditarod finish, I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible Nome was. For example, their streets were better kept than those in Anchorage. Several buildings in Nome, including the visitor center, library, and grocery store, all have ramps.

Lent poses for a picture in front of one of two accessible vans that serve all of Nome, Alaska. (Photo provided.)

Alaska’s rural communities need more education on the ADA, and I’d like to see more enforcement of the ADA across the state in general. I was privileged to speak before Congress in October 1989 when I was 11 years old. I spoke on the importance of accessibility in one’s community and school system. Six months later, then-president George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

My motto is that when you make things accessible for those with disabilities, you make things accessible for everyone.

DY: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to in terms of this pageant experience?

KL: I am extremely honored and excited to represent Alaska as Ms. Wheelchair Alaska 2022 during the national pageant this July in Ohio. I have loved getting to know my fellow pageant sisters and am excited to meet them in person and share my love of Alaska with them. I am also really looking forward to seeing my parents who are coming from Utah and my aunt and cousins who are coming from Alabama. I haven’t seen my parents in over a year and haven’t seen my family from Alabama in several years, so it will be very special to see all of them.

I have grown so much as a person this past year. Participating in this pageant allows me to grow and stretch my advocacy skills and interact with a broader audience through various social platforms. In addition, I have greatly enjoyed meeting more people from across the state and having meaningful conversations about how to better meet the needs of individuals experiencing disabilities by including them in the discussion.


This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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The post Q&A: Improving Access in Rural Alaska with Ms. Wheelchair USA Contestant Kristie Lent appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

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