Cruising the Planet with Amputee Debra Kerper
Editor’s Note: When a bone infection complicated by lupus took Debra Kerper’s right leg, her doctors told her she shouldn’t be working full-time. However, after giving up her job as an office assistant, boredom quickly set in. Kerper’s restlessness led her to the nearby community college where a brochure stating, “Travel the World” caught her eye and sent her down the path toward creating Cruise Planners/Easy Access Travel, a travel agency specializing in the needs of disabled travelers.
From Boredom to Entrepreneurship
After seeing the brochure for a class on travel, I signed up. It turns out it was the beginning of a two-year travel agent curriculum. The first day, the teacher asked us to each give an introduction and tell everyone why we were there. As we went around the room and people gave their answers, a lot of them hadn’t worked previously or had been recently laid off from a job and wanted to reinvent themselves. Many of them said they wanted to work part-time or from home, but everyone was there to become a travel agent. By the time it was my turn, I had come up with a scenario. I said I had medical problems and was looking for something I could do from home and if necessary, part-time. I had also decided I was going to specialize in travel for people with disabilities.
That day, I made up my mind to not only learn how to be a travel agent but learn the area of accessible travel. I hadn’t done much traveling at that time. I had only been on two cruises which were not accessible, but I managed somehow. I went to the library (this was the early ‘90s) and found four books on the subject of accessible travel. I called all of the authors and picked their brains. There was one gentleman who had an organization called Society for Accessible Travel, and they were having their first international conference around that time. I booked a ticket to Florida and went. It was the best thing I could have done. There were agents from all over the world who did tours for people with disabilities. I laid in bed that night after the conference and thought, “Okay, I’m going to start this business!” and I came up with the name Easy Access Travel.
It grew from there. I started traveling. I went to the conference every year. Whatever money I made, I put it in my personal travel fund. I lived in Southern California at the time, so there were a lot of cruises going out of Los Angeles and San Diego. Back then, they had some really great travel agent rates, so off I went and started learning.
I wake up every day and I can’t wait to get to my desk. I absolutely love what I do.
I based my business on the foundation of being honest and forthright with people.
It may sound trite, but it hasn’t been about the money. It started out as a hobby to give me a purpose. I was in and out of the hospital, and this gave me a way to take the focus off myself. It grew into an amazing career and business.
Making Memories and Friends
I have a lot of respect for my customers’ time, money, and memories. I’m not going to abuse any of those things. It’s about having a good time, laughing, making new friends, and seeing new things. Travel just makes you feel like everyone else.
Adventure for All
One of the things I like best about what I do is educating people on how they can do new things and still have a good life even with a disability.
I don’t take anyone’s feelings away from them because they’re very real, but it’s so much more fun to have adventures and go out and do things rather than sitting at home and feeling sorry for yourself.
People Just Like Me
I do individual travel planning, but my group trips have just exploded. They’ve become so successful because people like the security that I afford them knowing I’ll be there with the group. People also love the group trips because they’re with others who understand their situation. It may take one person a little longer to get up and get ready in the morning, or another may get tired quickly and need an afternoon nap. But we all get that. The friendships that my clients have formed with each other is amazing.
My trips are almost like big reunions. It really gives me a sense of accomplishment and makes me feel good.
One of the things that clients have said to me is, “I looked around, and I wasn’t the odd man out. I wasn’t different. There were all these people who were just like me.” You don’t feel self-conscious when you’re in one of our groups.
Go Have Fun!
We always tell people we’re on the trip for them. In other words, we’ve already been these places; this is not our vacation. Don’t think I don’t have a great time. I do! But if you have a problem or something isn’t working right, don’t wait to tell us until the trip is over. Come to us and let us solve it. We’re not going to make you wait in line to talk to guest relations. You go have fun. Go do what you want to do and we’ll take care of the problem.
Tears and Laughter
Two years ago, I ended up having my other leg amputated, so that was a pretty big game changer in terms of mobility. Being a single amputee, if I had to get by without an accessible room, I could do it. Now, it’s a lot tougher. Through my clients, I know a lot of people that are bilateral amputees, and they were my support system. I was scared, but I had people I could talk to. I had my computer at my bedside, so I could keep working and take the focus off of me. First, you cry and then, you laugh. Stuff happens. Life goes on. If you have the ability to laugh at yourself, that helps.
The Great Educator
Travel is the great educator. It teaches us how to get along with others. The one thing that I have come to realize in all my years of traveling is that we are all the same. People, in general, are good. I’ve had so many more positive experiences than I’ve ever had negative. If you said, “Tell me your biggest negative experience,” I’d really have to stop and think.
What to Pack
The most important thing you have to remember to pack is a good attitude and a smile.
Editor’s Note: Visit EasyAccessTravel.com to browse photos of past trips or get in touch with Kerper for help planning your next vacation. Follow on Facebook and Twitter to be the first to know about upcoming trips before all the spots are filled!
A Magazine for Amputees
Amplitude magazine provides valuable and unbiased news, information, and resources for amputees who want to live more fully, as well as articles and information relevant to their families and their caregivers. It offers content on a wide variety of topics, including peer support, active living, emotional issues, health and wellness, mobility, and adaptive living—anything that will help amputees enjoy all that life has to offer. Learn more at www.amplitude-media.com.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!