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Planes, Trains and Wheelchairs: U of G grad Drew Cumpson advocates for the disabled

One of the featured speakers at Saturday's TEDxGuelphU event, Cumpson is trying to make travel more accessible for those with disabilities
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University of Guelph graduate and accessibility advocate Drew Cumpson speaks at the TEDxGuelphU event Saturday at HOPE House. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

Drew Cumpson was a second-year University of Guelph student spending a summer in Peru in 2011 when his world changed forever.

A spinal injury suffered while body surfing left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down and dependent on a ventilator for the rest of his life.

A short time after that his mother was stricken with cancer.

“My mom told me to get my education and live life to the fullest,” Cumpson told the roughly 100 people attending Saturday’s TEDxGuelphU event at HOPE House.

“This is now my life. I can’t change it. I can learn and make something of my life or be depressed and not do anything.”

What Cumpson has done is become an advocate and ambassador for accessibility and change.

He has a consulting company and is in the process of making a documentary called Planes, Trains and Wheelchairs about the issues people with disabilities have when travelling and the need for changes in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

“I’m a very determined and driven guy,” said Cumpson, who realized just how many barriers there were to travel when he went to Mexico, particularly when it came to getting him from his wheelchair into a seat, because there are no accommdations for a wheelchair on a plane.

“It was a big learning experience. Travelling with a disability is not easy. It takes a lot of planning.”

Cumpson said he has made it his mission to get wheelchair accessibility on airplanes.

“It’s the only mode of transportation that does not have wheelchair spots available,” Cumpson said.

He’s part of an organization called All Wheels Up to Change Air Travel that is aiming to change that. They are advocating for removable seats that can allow a wheelchair to be secured on the plane.

“You can still do anything you want to in life with a disability; you just have to do it in a different way,” Cumpson said.

“If you have the right mindset, you can do anything you want in this world.”

Saturday was the 10th anniversary of the TEDxGuelphU event, which is an offshoot of the popular TED Talks movement where people share ideas and thoughts for change.

This year’s local event focused on finding solutions to current issues through collaboration.

Other speakers at the day-long event included U of G professor Tami Martino, speaking on circadian medicine, sledge hockey player Tyler McGregor, entrepreneur, lawyer and business coach Rocco Cozza, U of G microbiology student Jehoshua Sharma, Saba Safdar, a professor who studies the adaptation of immigrants and refugees, and veterinary surgeon and assistant professor Michelle Oblack, who has helped pioneer the use of 3D printers in the veterinary field.