2018 Person of the Year: Cory Lee Woodard

By |2019-01-02T14:02:32+00:00January 2nd, 2019|
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Cory Lee Woodard recently crossed “visiting the Taj Mahal” off his bucket list.

Cory Lee Woodard recently crossed “visiting the Taj Mahal” off his bucket list.

Through his blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee, Cory Lee Woodard has emerged as the face of accessible travel. In support of this status, he has racked up a number of prestigious recognitions that include the 2017 Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Blog and the 2018 Ed Roberts Award from The Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. He’s penned an article for National Geographic, has appeared in segments for Lonely Planet and CBS, and is considered a go-to guy for the editor of the Los Angeles Times travel section. He is also a NEW MOBILITY community partner and freelancer. It’s an honor to be part of his journey, and we are pleased to add to his list of accomplishments by acknowledging him as NM’s 2018 Person of the Year.

World traveler and award-winning blogger Cory Lee Woodard, 28, works from a 55-item bucket list and just crossed off a big one. Right below “Go to a Luau in Hawaii” and above “Get a Cocoa Facial in Hershey” is number 37 — “See the Taj Mahal.”

“You guys! I visited the Taj Mahal,” he gushed on Facebook. “Seeing this spectacular monument has been a lifelong dream for me, but I realistically wondered if it could ever happen, due to there being a lack of any accessibility in India until pretty recently. But I made it! Thank you Enable Travel for seeing a lack of accessibility and doing something to improve the situation, I’ll be forever grateful.”

His followers wanted to know all about it. What was most surprising? Was the accessibility OK? How was his mom handling the food?

“I’m probably most surprised by how fascinated everyone is with my wheelchair. I’ve been asked for selfies, gawked at and sort of feel like an animal in a zoo, but it’s totally fine. I know they’re just curious,” said Woodard, who has spinal muscular atrophy. “I’m also surprised at how accessible some of the attractions are … much better than I expected, but still need some improvements of course.” And his mom found pizza one night, so she was able to survive until they made it back home to rural Lafayette, Georgia.

That’s the Way He Is

On the surface, Woodard’s posts about the Taj Mahal just seem like words from a guy who enjoyed his vacation. But if you study them, they demonstrate three reasons why he is a popular blogger with both fellow wheelchair users and other travel professionals.

First, his down-to-earth, enthusiastic style is easy to engage and absorb. He’s fun to read and is a social media crackerjack, as he optimizes his platforms by tailoring unique and interesting messages for each one. He has 26,600 followers on Twitter, 17,462 on Facebook and 11,200 on Instagram. Their clicks on his links drive traffic to his info-rich blog, which then is leveraged for sponsorships so he can stay in business and keep traveling. He has the largest social media following in the accessible traveling field and makes it look easy as he raves about the interesting places he visits — from South Africa, where he was almost eaten by a hippo, to North Carolina, right up the coast from his hometown.
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Woodard is proud (and relieved) that he did not fall off this camel in Morocco.

Woodard is proud (and relieved) that he did not fall off this camel in Morocco.

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Second, he is gracious and open to new experiences. He knows that just as he is surprised, charmed, moved, excited and drawn in by the places he visits and the people who live there, so might they be by him. Have most people in India never seen a guy in a power chair like his before? Well, that’s OK. In a few days he’s used to the stares and decides he likes the attention. #CelebrityofIndia, he posts, jokingly. #Wheelchairinvader.

“That’s the way he is,” says Sylvia Longmire, who runs Spin the Globe travel agency. A wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis, she went on a seven-day accessible cruise through Scandinavia and Russia with Woodard in August 2017.

“I came across his stuff on Iceland, and he inspired me to start my own blog,” says Longmire, a professional writer for 14 years. “I’ve seen what he’s done and tried to follow in his footsteps, but now I’m established and work hard to differentiate myself.”

Which brings us to a third and final point. Woodard doesn’t shy away from an adventure just because it may be difficult. “I work full-time with influencers and have met hundreds of them over the years,” says Elisabeth Rundlöf, project manager with the city of Helsinki’s marketing department. She met Woodard when he was accepted into the prestigious Helsinki Secret Residence program in 2016. “Cory stood out because of his respectful, down to earth and life-loving attitude,” she says, and especially lauds his work ethic. “He decided to visit Helsinki during winter, even though it would have been easier to travel to Finland in summer — I think that spoke about his strong character! He’s never afraid to take on a challenge.” She says he was genuinely curious about her city, “and we continue to have a friendship since his visits here.”

A Life-Long Love of Travel

When he was 4, Woodard’s whole family went to Disney World for a week — him, his mom, dad and grandparents. “I remember sitting at breakfast in Cinderella Castle, meeting the characters and being so enthralled with that experience,” he says. It was such a formative vacation that he even did his college internship at Disney, years later.

During their trip to South Africa, Woodard looks on as his mom, Sandy Gilbreath, pets a cheetah.

During their trip to South Africa, Woodard looks on as his mom, Sandy Gilbreath, pets a cheetah.

It was also one of the last times he remembers his family being happy together. “My mom and dad got divorced when I was 4, and after that Disney trip, it was pretty much just me and my mom forever,” he says. “She worked in the physical education department at a school and every summer would have three months off, and we used that time to explore Florida, Washington, D.C., New York, Canada … all over the East Coast. My first international trip was to the Bahamas, when I was 15. That was the first time I saw a culture and different way of life, and it inspired me to travel and visit as many places as I could. I want to see as much of that as possible.”

As anyone who follows Woodard’s blog knows, his mom, Sandy Gilbreath, is still his favorite traveling partner. He’s her only child, but he has two half-sisters on his dad’s side, one older and one younger. Today she is a Medicaid specialist at a nursing facility. “But if I’m going somewhere, she always wants to go, if she can get off work,” he says. Although his mom goes on most of his trips with him, Woodard sometimes travels with aides, friends or other family members as well.

Gilbreath couldn’t be prouder of her son. “To see his drive, his motivation and his desire to push forward and live life to the fullest is admirable and I am truly blessed to share life and our many experiences together,” she said in a public Facebook post after their trip to India. “Thank you, son, for showing me how to live life and to be thankful for each and every day.”

“He and his mom are incredibly sweet,” says Longmire. She recalls touring the State Hermitage Museum with Woodard while in St. Petersburg, Russia. “His mom would rather poke her eyes out with a fork than look at history, but she loves her son so kind of rolled with it,” she says. “They’re fun, very easy going.”

Finding His Way

It’s an understatement to say Woodard wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college. “I changed my major five times,” he says. There were just too many topics that interested him. “I wanted to do a lot of different things. I knew I loved traveling and maybe wanted to do something in that area.” He started with international affairs, switched to German and then communications, and eventually settled on marketing. He graduated with his bachelors from West Georgia in 2013.

This year, Woodard keynoted the TBEXcon — an annual gathering of fellow travel industry professionals.

This year, Woodard keynoted the TBEXcon — an annual gathering of fellow travel industry professionals.

Once he got that marketing degree, he says, “I didn’t know how I would use it. I thought maybe in an ad agency or something like that.” Then he saw a post on a website about how to start a travel blog. “I’d been planning a trip to Australia and saw there wasn’t a lot online about accessibility there, and those two things happened at the perfect time.” He decided to start his own blog — first called Cory Lee Goes and then Curb Free with Cory Lee — and chronicle what he learned in his quest to go down under.

He wasn’t sure what the goal of his new venture ought to be. “In the early days, I thought maybe I should focus more broadly on travel because it’s a much bigger market and I thought it might give me more readers. But I thought no, I am going to focus strictly on accessibility from today to forever. It’s a big market, although a lot of destinations don’t think so, or understand how much money is in it or how many of us do travel.”

Defining his niche and sticking to it helped him build a loyal and dedicated audience who reads his articles and counts on his accessibility information. “I’m glad in the early days I didn’t try a broader market and have been pretty firm with my decision.”

But there was a point where he almost gave up. “Four months after I started blogging, I completely quit for three months because I thought no one was reading it,” he says. “And I started receiving messages from people that they miss me writing about my travels. They motivated me to come back, and I’ve been go-go-go ever since.”

Going on an Alaskan cruise was number 54 on Woodard’s bucket list.

Going on an Alaskan cruise was number 54 on Woodard’s bucket list.

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Deciding he needed more knowledge, he read and watched all that he could find on how to be a successful travel blogger. From Everything Everywhere’s Gary Arndt, he learned to never say no to an interview. “I will take any publicity I can get — online, print, podcast, anything,” Woodard says. From a piece in The New York Times, he discovered not all advice is equal. “There was an article that said you should always be on 60 social media channels at all times, and that’s insane,” says Woodard. “I focus on three or four platforms and try to be the expert on them and use them as best I can to get more readers and followers.” He even took classes on how to optimize web searches so his work is more likely to show up when someone Googles his keywords. “There is a lot more that goes into it than simply writing an article — that’s the easiest part.” And he learned to network. “Then I started doing speaking engagements, Abilities Expos, as many opportunities as I could get.”

He’s Out There Doing It

“I knew right away we wanted Cory,” says Sarah Laucks. She was director of education and events for the Abilities Expo when she scheduled his first appearance at the February 2015 Los Angeles show. “He has a great story, he’s out there, he’s traveling internationally with his passport in hand. He’s figuring it out — what will I do if it’s not accessible, or on long flights, what about bathrooms on planes? He’s tackling all those obstacles and it’s so good. We need people like Cory who are getting out there and doing it. Once you see Cory, you know you can travel, too.” Roughly 30,000 people attend each expo, and travel is consistently the number one topic of interest.

Traveling by rickshaw in Morocco was a treat.

Traveling by rickshaw in Morocco was a treat.

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“It was my first speaking gig in front of other people with disabilities, and they came after saying, ‘I learned something,’ or ‘I never thought I could fly in an airplane,’” says Woodard. “It motivated me to keep going. And a writer from the Los Angeles Times, Catherine Hamm, was at that speech and interviewed me for an article. Being featured in one of the biggest newspapers in the world also motivated me to keep going.”

Like most who meet him, Hamm, the travel section editor for the Los Angeles Times, remembers Woodard well. “Cory’s approach seems to be that almost anything is possible if we put our minds to it, use our collective experience and trust that the best will happen after the research has been done. It’s a positive approach that elevates conversations and lifts hearts.” She appreciates that he knows his stuff, tells her when he doesn’t know an answer instead of trying to bluff his way through, and that he has a sense of humor. “He was and is the trifecta,” she says.

Deep on a hiking trail in the Amazon, Woodard looks on as his guide shows him the local flora and fauna.

Deep on a hiking trail in the Amazon, Woodard looks on as his guide shows him the local flora and fauna.

Woodard is a hard worker and a meticulous organizer. “I start planning six to 12 months in advance to have time to research a destination to see if they have accessible transportation, what hotel I can stay at, anything like that, even if I’m pitching a press trip.” he says. “They’re not used to people pitching that early. So when I pitch that far in advance, it throws them off, but a lot of places have gotten a great education on what it takes to plan an accessible trip. It’s been a big eye-opener for destinations that I’ve worked with.”

All of that research, networking, granting interviews and securing speaking engagements is paying off, as Woodard’s business is now profitable. “The first two years I didn’t make hardly anything from it at all, but I kept working at writing good, quality content and growing my social media numbers,” says Woodard. This attracted offers for sponsorships and more speaking engagements — including keynoting this year’s TBEX, which bills itself as the largest conference and networking event for all sorts of travel industry professionals.

“This coming year will be my biggest schedule, more speeches and paid press trips,” says Woodard. “Travel is great but if it’s not paying me, then I’m missing out on other opportunities.”

What Comes Next

Where will Woodard travel to next? He still has a few dozen items left on his bucket list.

Where will Woodard travel to next? He still has a few dozen items left on his bucket list.

Where will Woodard be off to next? After all, he still has destinations to check off of his bucket list, and he’s only visited six out of seven continents. Perhaps he’ll make it to the Great Wall of China or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Wherever it is, he will find a way to share the excitement and joy it brings.

“Five years ago if you told me I’d be at this level, I’d be shocked,” says Woodard. “There are so many notes scattered all over my desk … goals, places I need to be pitching.”

What keeps him going is knowing how appreciated he and his work are. “When I get discouraged, I remember the reason why I’m doing it and started it in the first place,” he says. “Without the encouragement of readers and followers, I would have given up.”

For others with disabilities who may also want to find a way to build a business around their own passion, his advice is humble. “Just learn what works for you. It’s tough to find it, but when you do, it’s worth it,” he says. “No matter what you’re doing, try to stay motivated and remember the reason why you do the thing you do.”

Cory Lee’s Craziest Travel Experiences:

1. Trapped on a Burning Bus in Washington, D.C.

On a lovely autumn day while in Washington, D.C., I decided to venture to the National Zoo for some fun. Public transportation in D.C. is some of the most accessible in the world, so I never could have imagined what happened next. I boarded a bus in Chinatown with my friend and within about two minutes, the wheelchair lift on the bus started smoking.

I alerted the driver and he exited the bus. Everyone else followed suit, leaving me and my friend alone inside. The smoke started getting worse, and a flame emerged from the lift. So there I was trapped on a burning bus with no way to get off. As you can probably imagine, I was freaking out. Where was the driver?! Who knows …

Luckily, right before true disaster struck, a fire truck rounded the corner and parked beside the bus. It got there at the perfect time. A few firefighters rushed in and carried me and my heavy power wheelchair down the steps.

I never saw the bus driver again, but I assumed that he called and reported the issue. Instead of going to the zoo that day, I went to a restaurant and stress-ate. When I eventually did visit the zoo a few weeks later, the whole ordeal made my visit even more worthwhile.

2: The Night the Lights Went Out in Munich

Despite his mishap with an incompatible wheelchair charger, Woodard enjoyed his time in Munich, Germany.

Despite his mishap with an incompatible wheelchair charger, Woodard enjoyed his time in Munich, Germany.

I visited Germany in 2008 on my first trip to Europe. I had studied the German language for years in school (I took five semesters of German and then peer-facilitated for two semesters, to be exact) and I was super excited to finally be in the place I had been dreaming of. However, on my first night in Munich, things got a bit interesting.

Before the trip, I researched how to charge my power wheelchair in Germany and bought the required converter and adapter. On my first night, we set everything up and plugged my wheelchair charger into the outlet with the converter and adapter. Immediately, sparks flew and the power went out throughout the hotel for about 15 minutes. Luckily, the hotel never found out that I caused the outage.

The next morning, thanks to a couple hours of searching Google and really testing my German skills, I hunted down a wheelchair repair shop in Munich. They actually sold a 240-volt charger that worked with my chair, but it cost $250. This experience taught me to always take extra money for the unexpected and to find a local wheelchair repair shop before I visit any destination, just in case I need it.

3: Close Encounters of the Hippo Kind

Good thing Jessica the Hippo listened when her daddy said to stop chewing Woodard.

Good thing Jessica the Hippo listened when her daddy said to stop chewing Woodard.

By far the craziest and scariest experience that has happened to me while traveling was in South Africa. Toward the end of my trip, after going on an incredible safari in Kruger National Park, I had the chance to meet Jessica, the world’s most famous hippo. We’re not talking about just being famous in South Africa, Jessica is famous worldwide and has been on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to CNN. She’s well-known because she is not your average hippo.

When Jessica was a baby, a man and woman found her struggling to stay alive. She was swept away from her hippo family during a flood and was struggling to make it on her own. The humans nursed her back to health, and Jessica began to grow. Her new mom and dad had to widen the doorways in their home, and they even built a special bed inside the house for her. She can now go in and out of the house as she pleases. Her residence has become a South African tourist mainstay.

When I went to meet Jessica, her human “dad” handed me a sweet potato to feed her. She was down in the water, so it was difficult for me to lean over and drop the potato in her mouth. It was taking me a while, when Jessica decided that she wasn’t going to wait. All of a sudden, she lunged up out of the water, grabbed the side of my wheelchair with her massive teeth, and started pulling me into the water. I literally blacked out and don’t remember too much, but right before I became Jessica’s lunch for the day, her dad stepped in and yelled for her to stop. Thankfully, she was a good daughter and listened to her dad, so I’m alive today. Yay!

Cory’s Bucket List

Cory Woodard says creating a bucket list is important for any traveler. “I am constantly adding stuff to it as I discover new things that I want to do.” Reading about where he’s not been is almost as much fun as reading about his adventures in places he has visited.

Right above the list on his blog, in large letters, he announces that he’s not achieved his life goal: to visit all seven continents. Although it’s a safe guess he won’t be arranging a group tour of Antarctica any time in the near future.

He’s yet to snorkel the Great Reef Barrier in Australia — that’s second on the list, right below “See the Super Bowl” — but did manage to ride a camel without falling off during his April trip to Morocco. “The camel seemed much bigger in reality than I imagined it would be, and as it got closer I looked in its eyes,” he wrote. “I tried to telepathically let him know that he was the best camel in the whole desert, in hopes that he would spare me from face-planting in the sand.” His trip’s sponsor, Morocco Accessible Travel Consultants had rigged a secure adaptive camel saddle, and Woodard was as safe as could be.

Pizza still awaits him in Italy and Carnival in Brazil, although he did manage to hike in the Amazon. The Amazonian blog entry is grossly entertaining, as it recounts what happened when his guide pointed out the chontacuro worm. “He placed it on a leaf to show us up close and said that it is considered somewhat of a delicacy to many of Ecuador’s indigenous people,” wrote Woodard, and you can see where this story is going. “Jokingly, and stupidly, I asked if I could eat it.”  Others in the group chanted Do it! Do it! “I’ll admit that I easily give in to peer pressure, so I said that I would. … As I started chewing, I could feel the worm’s insides burst all over my tongue. It was an interesting sensation but didn’t taste all that bad compared to other things that I have eaten around the world: fermented shark in Iceland, kangaroo in Australia, and just a couple days before chowing down on this worm, I ate guinea pig in Quito. I’m an adventurous eater, but this was the first living thing that I had ever eaten.”

Most of his adventures aren’t quite as … squishy, shall we say. Read them all on his blog at curbfreewithcorylee.com.