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Learning To Advocate for Myself on the Slopes of Colorado

A writer with mobility issues faces her fears and learns that asking for help can be a form of strength.

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Hi, I'm Shayna!

Shayna Conde is an Afro-Caribbean travel, food, and beverage journalist who has Neuromyelitis Optica, an autoimmune disease similar to Multiple Sclerosis. Her work can also be found in Food & Wine Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, BBC Food, Allure, Departures, Well+Good, USA Today, and several other publications. For more of Shayna's food and travel recommendations, or to get in contact with her, follow her on Instagram @shaynarc or go to her website shaynaconde.com.

“A low of seven degrees!?” My mom and I looked at each other with deep concern as I absorbed all the details I was learning about my trip, just three days before it was set to begin. As I reviewed my itinerary—which included a suggested ski excursion, pictures of cabins surrounded by pillowy mounds of fresh snow, and a suggestion that I bring heavy winter boots (which I had already borrowed from a friend who lives for hyperborean cliffside adventures)—all I could think was Shayna … genuinely … what are you doing? I’ve always gravitated towards mildly impulsive adventures in new places, but this trip was looking like it was going to be about two towns and a connecting train away from my comfort zone. In fact, I was genuinely worried about whether my body could handle whatever was to come on this trip—only my second out-of-town adventure after slowly regaining the ability to walk in my mid-20s.

I have an autoimmune disease called neuromyelitis optica (NMO), which is very similar to Multiple Sclerosis except that it primarily affects the optic nerve and spinal cord. For me, it meant that my T1 through T5 vertebrae lit up like a Christmas tree on an MRI when I was hospitalized. My first episode was in 2016, when I was hospitalized on New Year’s Eve because I—a then 24-year-old who studied fencing and acrobatics in Russia—couldn’t feel anything below my sternum. Over the subsequent 12 months, I had to learn how to walk, run, drive, and even poop again. I’m grateful to say that most of the function in my body has returned. However, I still live with numbness in my legs because of nerve damage, and, as a result, certain physical activities that I once dove into headfirst now have to be approached with extreme caution (if I even approach them at all). A lot of winter adventures, like those described on my itinerary, fell into that category.

Ski slopes in Steamboat Springs, Colorado as seen from above
Steamboat Springs in Colorado is a popular winter resort town.Bildquelle: Joshua Lehew / Shutterstock

As a Black woman of West Indian descent, winter is not my season. I’ve never enjoyed the cold, being covered in snow, shoveling out my car, making snow angels, or 99 percent of the other activities people usually do in the cold. (Building a snow fort is the only exception.) Now, with my nerve damage and autoimmune disease, there was a new host of reasons for me to stick to warmer climates. But something told me to give Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a try. Most of my life decisions (major and minor) have been made based on vibes. My mother taught me to trust my gut, and throughout my life I’ve noticed that things turn out best when I follow her advice. There was something about Steamboat Springs that reminded me of the old trope “opposites attract.” In some ways, the trip seemed appealing specifically because it didn’t fit with the normal patterns in my life. Also, the more pictures I saw of the town’s downtown, the more I noticed how Hallmark movie–esque it looked. I figured that maybe, just maybe, this storybook land in the mountains could teach me about something bigger than myself. So, despite my usual worries, I agreed to attend a group trip to a property run by the luxury rental company OneFineStay and their partner Moving Mountains.

When I landed in Steamboat Springs, in November 2022, there was snow everywhere (worst-case scenario number one). To be fair, I knew there would be snow—it was winter after all—but for some reason I had imagined it would be similar to cute, pre-climate crisis New Jersey levels of snow. I was incorrect. When my group arrived at our gorgeous 6-bedroom, 7-bathroom luxury megacabin, I learned that my room was up a large flight of stairs (worst-case scenario number two). My itinerary had said that my room would have an en suite bathroom and a balcony, but it had not mentioned a daily vertical climb to get to those things. The longer I looked at those stairs, the more I could feel my stomach drop.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado downtown in summertime
The Steamboat Springs downtown was what called out to Shayna in the first place.Bildquelle: photojohn830 / Shutterstock

The issue, I knew, was that I hadn’t told the trip’s organizers about my disability. No one knew about my autoimmune disease. To be honest, outside of select family and friends, and people who were there during my year-long recovery, very few people know about my NMO, and that was intentional. I am the oldest daughter (and the oldest granddaughter) in an immigrant family. Whether it’s verbalized or not, many families like mine expect people born into this familial position to be strong and strive for perfection. As a result, asking for help (even in the form of disclosing my autoimmune disease) was a foreign idea.

And I wasn’t in a hurry to let people on this particular trip know about my condition, either. I was the only Black person in the group, the newest journalist of the bunch, and (from what I could tell) the only person with accessibility needs. So, though everyone was very friendly and welcoming, I was already feeling like an outsider. And the thought of being perceived as weak, especially at a professional event, shook me deeper than any deep freeze ever could.

I stumbled my way through the snow to get into the lodge and blamed my wobbliness on a cutesy lack of coordination, then asked one of the guys to bring my luggage up the stairs while I delicately made my way to my room. My worries worsened as I once again reviewed my very physically active itinerary. Before the onset of my NMO, my body had never failed to meet challenges. I had studied ballet with former Bolshoi dancers in Moscow, learned how to fight with a broadsword, run 100-meter hurdles, and done acrobatics and 3-person tango routines. But now, I was scared. What if I couldn’t live up to the expectations of a simple piece of paper because my body was forever changed?

Shayna Conde stands with her back to the Colorado mountains and snow
Shayna struggled to navigate some of the snowy ground and stairs in Colorado.Bildquelle: Shayna Conde

That night at dinner, we ate with the president of Moving Mountains, who wanted to hear our thoughts on the property we were staying in. As the conversation unfolded around me, I found myself biting my tongue. I knew that we needed to talk about accessibility, but I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up. After waiting a while, I finally decided to ask the question that was at the top of my mind: “What work are you doing to make your properties more accessible?”

Our host began talking about the importance of accessibility, but he addressed it in a non-specific way that made it feel like we were talking in abstractions, as though accessibility was outside the window and we were commenting on her outfit and shoes rather than the fact that she was sitting at the table with us, elbows deep in brie, balsamic glaze, and conversation. That was when I realized that I was going to have to be bold and let my group know that this topic was very personal to me. “So, um, I have an autoimmune disease that affects my mobility called neuromyelitis optica,” I started.

A hush fell over the table when I finished speaking. But after I explained what NMO is, and how it affects my experiences, the conversation began to feel more purposeful. Our host asked me to share my feelings about the property, from my perspective as someone with occasional mobility needs. As a new writer, I had no idea what was or was not off limits, so I just told him everything I had been experiencing and worried about. He thanked me for my honesty and shared that conversations like these were important to him.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs with freshly fallen snow in Colorado
The waters of Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Colorado were great for nerve pain.Bildquelle: Teri Virbickis / Shutterstock

Another of his colleagues, sitting across the table, asked why I hadn’t shared this with anyone on the team. I hesitated, but after realizing I was already in the deep end of this conversation, I said it was because I’d been self-conscious. They were understanding but explained that if they had known, they could have organized amenities to help with my stay or even offered me an ADA-approved room in another of their properties. They also offered to connect me with some of their partners, like Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS), an organization of parents and ski instructors who provide disabled people the opportunity to participate in winter recreational sports, and the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which specializes in helping BIPOC skiers (including disabled BIPOC skiers) feel more at home on the slopes.

By the time dinner was over, I felt lighter and freer within the group. I no longer felt the need to make excuses for why I didn’t want to go skiing or snowboarding; instead, the team offered a more accommodating alternative, booking me an afternoon at the Strawberry Park Hot Springs so I could spend a relaxing afternoon soaking in the pools and while admiring snow-capped peaks. (It turns out that hot springs are great for alleviating nerve pain!) Later on, the team also offered me a tour of some of their ADA-compliant lodgings and amenities, which ranged from a simple ramp in place of stairs to a foldable lift to help wheelchair-using visitors into and out of a pool. Through these experiences, I was able to see the array of ways that companies in winter destinations can help disabled and chronically ill travelers feel seen and comfortable.

As I got more comfortable asking for help, some of my fellow travelers also began offering to help me get into and out of vehicles. I even buddied up with one of the other attendees and spent time walking arm-in-arm across the lightly icy downtown area, talking about dating and life back in the NYC area.

Shayna Conde poses in a cozy hotel room with a robe and glass of wine
Shayna was able to rearrange her schedule and enjoy some more relaxing activities.Bildquelle: Shayna Conde

As I saw how much speaking up had improved my experience, I began to realize that I had more internal growth to do when it came to confidently sharing my needs. Shame is not a word that I usually associate with myself, but I realized that I was ashamed of my autoimmune disease and what it did to my body. Black women are expected to be superwomen in every aspect of our lives. Doctors often assume that we feel significantly less pain than our white counterparts, and we learn to seldom ask for help because our requests are rarely taken seriously. But I realized that as a Black woman with mobility issues, I can’t always do what other people may expect me to do. And that’s OK.

By the time I left Steamboat Springs, I had a new sense of confidence and a deeper appreciation for the power of asking for help. Speaking up in a space where I felt out of place was the beginning of a journey towards being more confident in advocating for myself. In the past year, I’ve practiced being much more open with people about my needs. In fact, when I returned to Colorado this year (to Snowmass this time) I spoke to a representative at the Viewline Resort about my mobility before my trip to ensure that I wouldn’t need to use stairs (unless there was an emergency) and that the free bus into Aspen was a quick 3-minute walk from the hotel grounds, all on flat ground.

Different locations hold different lessons for me, and Colorado taught me how to use my voice in a new way. My biggest hurdle was being able to vocalize my needs (both before and after my autoimmune onset) and now, step-by-step and story-by-story, I hope that my voice allows more disabled and chronically ill Black and brown travelers to feel empowered to embark on new adventures.

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