Pedaling for change: Max Thurston's adventure to advocate for independent living. Photo of a man with two bikes, in the nature.

Max Thurston’s Adventure to Advocate for Independent Living

Hello! My name is Max Thurston, and I’m a PhD researcher and passionate adventure cyclist from Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, now living in Helsinki, Finland. I’m partnering with ENIL as part of my project to ride my bicycle from Helsinki to Cape Town, South Africa, with the goal to promote and raise funds and awareness for disability rights and independent living during my cycling journey across Europe and Africa. I have been planning and dreaming of this trip for the last two years – to live free and simply, with all I need to live happily strapped to my bike; to explore more of the world, and experience the diverse cultures, perspectives, and ways of life; and to see and feel a larger part of the colorful, sometimes messy, but fundamentally beautiful tapestry of humanity throughout these regions of the world, and learn all I can from the journey. I think it’s going to be one heck of an adventure, and I can’t wait to begin!

My personal connection with disability rights and independent living comes through my passionate for movement. I’ve always loved pretty much all things active, especially if it involved exploring in the outdoors, and I’m an avid cyclist, climber, skier, runner, and hiker. This love for movement guided me to study sport science in Finland, and learn more about how exercise changes and benefits our bodies and minds. Following my master’s, I began my PhD, where for the past four years, I’ve been studying the potential of assistive exoskeletons to enhance walking ability in children and adolescents with physical disability from Cerebral Palsy (CP), with the large-scale aim to facilitate mobility and independence, enable greater participation in the community, and empower those with CP to be able to move and live without limitations. During my PhD, I’ve gotten to know and been inspired by the strength, resilience, and positive outlook of so many of the kids with CP that I’ve worked with; but I’ve also witnessed the challenges of having to face inaccessibility, structural barriers, and social stigma, that restrict independent living and exclude full and equal participation in society, not just for those with CP, but for people across the disability spectrum. My PhD has instilled in me a desire to do my part to work towards a world where everyone, abled and disabled alike, can exercise choice and control over their lives, have equivalent access to all aspects of society, and are seen and valued as equal human beings, without stigma or prejudice.

I hope to take this purpose into my big cycling project: to use my trip to advocate for accessibility, inclusion, and independent living, partner with and raise awareness and funds for organizations fighting for disability rights and representation throughout Europe and Africa, and share a meaningful story of the experiences, struggles, strengths, and dreams of people living with disabilities during my journey. This is why I am thrilled to be partnering with ENIL as part of my trip! I truly believe in the mission and work of ENIL, to advocate for independent living principles, values, and practices, and fight for the voices and political representation of people with disabilities throughout Europe. It is an honor to be representing ENIL during my ride, and I hope to raise awareness and funds to support ENIL’s work, and promote ENIL’s vision and independent living values along my trip.

I plan to begin my cycling journey from Helsinki on May 26th, 2024, and hope to arrive to Cape Town by the end of December, 2025, covering around 25 000 km, crossing at least 26 unique countries, and living for a year and a half on my bike. The first stage of my journey will be riding from Helsinki to Paris, France, where I will be attending both the Olympic and Paralympic games. During the Paralympics I plan to share about the incredible stories and accomplishments of the Paralympians, exhibiting the strengths and achievements of the disabled athletes, and advocating for accessibility and inclusion in the context of adapted sport and physical activity. On my way to Paris, I will also visit Brussels to meet with the ENIL team in-person, share their stories, and do my small part in assisting with ENIL’s work while I am there. After Paris, I will make my way to southern Spain, where I plan to cross over to Morocco and begin my ride through the beautiful, diverse, complex, and colorful African continent near the end of November, 2024. My goal is to connect with a variety of disability-focused organizations working throughout the regions of Europe and Africa that I will be traveling. With the support of ENIL, I hope to meet with many amazing ENIL member organizations during my ride through Europe, sharing their unique stories, aims, and vision for the independent living movement.

My journey certainly won’t be without its challenges, from flat tires to sickness, culture shock and safety risks, to just feeling lonely and homesick. But, I’m sure my journey will be filled with a lot of joy too, of meeting new people and making new friends, finding peace and serenity in the moments of solitude, becoming immersed in nature and exploring awe-inspiring landscapes, and making new unforgettable memories each day of the ride. It is my hope, though, that this journey can transcend myself and become about something larger – to promote worthy disability organizations and share the stories of disabled people themselves, shedding light on the struggles, lack of access, and barriers people with disabilities face throughout Europe and Africa, and how far we still have to go to truly enable independent living for everyone; but also showcasing the perspectives, strengths, goals, dreams, sorrows, joys, and simple humanity of the individual people living with disabilities that I will meet. People are people, abled or disabled, and I hope the story of my ride can display that everyone deserves the right to independent living, to choose and control their lives, and be seen, heard, and valued as equal human beings. It really is an honor to be partnering with ENIL to promote the vision of independent living for people across the disability spectrum, and I hope my journey and the story I will share can contribute to the accessibility and independent living cause.

You can follow my journey on my social media channels: Instagram and Facebook, as well as my Blog, where I’ll be posting all about the experiences, lessons, and stories from my trip. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you will be excited to follow my journey and listen to this story.