There have been countless products created for accessibility, but few of them have the potential to affect society on such a profound level as Access Trax. That’s because it’s far more than just the only foldable, lightweight, durable pathway designed to increase wheelchair access over uneven terrain. And more than an awesome, environmentally friendly invention made of recyclable HDPE. In addition to bridging the gap between land and sea, it is also a perfect example of how one person can impact the lives of so many others. As a performer with a disability who’s career started with a Christopher Reeve acting scholarship, I know what it’s like to benefit from another person’s passion. So I was excited when ABILITY Magazine give me the recent opportunity to interview Access Trax co-creator, Kelly Twichel and learn more about her passion. Please join us as she shares the journey that led her to developing Access Trax and the path that lies ahead.
Toby Forrest: I first wanted you to know I’ve tried it before. It’s very cool.
Kelly Twichel: Great. Where did you try it?
Toby: Surfing. I think they had it at one of the events for Life Rolls On.
Toby: Let’s find out where it all started, the seed for the idea. What’s your background? Where are you from? How did you enter to the world of disability, first and foremost?
Kelly: Sure. I’m based in San Diego, born and raised here. I really never left, even for school. I got my undergrad degree in biology here at San Diego State University. It was—there are two ways I describe my journey in the beginning. The typical way I describe it is when I go to grad school for occupational therapy, it started as a school project. But sometimes I add in that in everybody’s journey in their life, there’s always some sort of event that happens, whether it’s in an instant or over a period of time, that shapes who they are and who they will become. For me, that particular event was when I was 12 years old. My mom suffered a massive stroke.
Kelly: Yeah. It was two weeks before I started high school, and I woke up to paramedics coming up the stairs in my home. I ran down the hallway into her bedroom and she was on the bathroom floor and she couldn’t move and she couldn’t talk. I cradled her head in my lap and I was stroking her hair, and I said, “It’s going to be OK,” knowing that I had no idea if it was going to be OK or not. But you have to be that rock for another person you care about in that crazy moment.
Toby: Right. You switch roles.
Kelly: Oh, totally. Honestly, from the time I was 12 years old to—unfortunately, my mom isn’t with us any longer. She passed away at the end of 2020. But I felt like I was the adult in the family since I was 12 years old. There are a lot of factors with that. I had to grow up in an instant. I had a lot of responsibility. How that event shaped me as a person is that I became more aware of what it’s like to be in a family with somebody with a disability. Before that, I really didn’t know. I didn’t have that much exposure to it except for maybe my grandparents. But when you are in the same household, that’s where it really starts to drive your thinking and your motivations for, “What can I do to make life more fun, more inclusive for this person I care about?” That’s where my journey started into becoming who I am and caring about making the world more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.
Toby: So caring for your mom or having to start to, that was the catalyst for your empathy for this community?
Toby: And how did this idea come about of Access Trax, creating an ability for people who are limited to experience something that is otherwise unattainable or inaccessible?
Kelly: That journey started when I was in grad school for occupational therapy. Because of my experience with my mom I knew I wanted to be in healthcare, and I picked occupational therapy because I could be way more hands-on in part of a person’s healthcare journey from whether they had an injury or an illness or they just were trying to learn a new skill. There are so many ways we can help. In grad school for occupational therapy, I was in school from 2015 to 2017, and during a specific class called Assistive Technologies, that was in 2016, the school project was to create something to help people with disabilities be more independent at some sort of task. It was very broad. My professors, Dr. Mo, Dr. Maureen Johnson, challenged anybody in the class, “Can any one of your groups try to tackle the problem of helping adaptive surfers cross the sand at the beach in their wheelchair?”
Toby: That was so specific.
Kelly: She was a surfer. Contrary to popular belief or assumption, I am not a surfer yet (laughs). I always say “yet.”
Toby: But you have the California look.
Kelly: (laughs) I mean, growing up here and starting a company that was inspired by adaptive surfers, you would think that. So my professor was a surfer, and she said, “I really would love for any of the groups to try this.” So my classmate and I who were partners said, “Absolutely, we’ll try it.” We wanted to create something that wasn’t just a wheelchair modification to help cross the sand because if you create just a wheelchair modification, you’re only helping one individual at a time. And everybody has different types of chairs, different customizations. I didn’t think we could mess with that aspect of it. We wanted to have more of a universal design aspect, where if it’s a portable access mat, it can help more than just one person at a time when you lay it down. You can see in the current design that people even benefit from walking on it, or parents with baby strollers pushing their children, or people have heavy equipment.
Toby: How many people hate hot sand, right?
Kelly: (laughs) Yeah. Or just getting sand in their shoes and socks. It’s so funny. So my classmate and I said, “Hey, we’ll try to tackle this on this school project.” At that point, I had no idea I would turn it into a business. That wasn’t our thinking, it was, “This is a really cool problem.” We were so into trying to solve that problem, just being creative. We went to Home Depot three or more times in one day testing out what materials we could put together to provide enough traction so that the tires on their existing mobility devices, like wheelchairs, could be able to traverse the sand. We ended up zip-tying aluminum rain gutter covers in a track formation along a roll of plastic chicken mesh. So it’s like chicken wire, but it’s plastic, and it rolls up. We zip-tied these aluminum rain gutter covers, which are six inches wide and three feet long, in the pattern of where it would provide traction for the two main tires of a wheelchair as well as the smaller caster wheels.
Of course, we took it to the beach and made sure that we could put a wheelchair on it and that the dimensions were right. But the real magic happened when we got to volunteer at a surfing competition in Ocean Beach that happened to have five adaptive surfers that day. We had two about 10-foot sections of that matting, and we leap-frogged down the sand, so we had two individuals who pushed themselves independently in their chair as we laid down the mat. It was that moment when we heard from those folks and we saw the looks on their faces and heard what they said about it, that it doesn’t matter what the product looks like, it doesn’t matter that we threw it together with zip-ties. What mattered was how it made them feel. It empowered these individuals, who are grown adults participating in a competitive sort to get on the beach without being carried like a child, without dragging their bodies across the sand, which one surfer said that this was the first time in 10 years he had been on the beach in his own wheelchair.
The alternative was, one, they don’t go, two, they have to use sub-par methods that don’t provide dignity or independence, and we figured out—and I can’t believe that something like this doesn’t already exist that’s this portable and lightweight and modular. We had to turn this into a business. There was no question about it.
Toby: (laughs) That’s great!
Kelly: (laughs) Yeah! We wanted to help not only adaptive surfers, but anybody with a mobility challenge to be able to access outdoor terrain like sand at the beach or grass or gravel or snow, access the outdoors so that there weren’t as many barriers in life. Because I understand that there are already way too many barriers to daily life for people with disabilities. If I can be part of a solution to make life more enjoyable and easier, that was really important for me.
Toby: It seems like a product that you started with such great intention has probably even more aspects and applications than you initially even imagined. When I saw this, I was like, “Oh, it’s perfect for a wedding on the beach. Now you’ve got access for any event that could happen.” I always think bringing stuff out to the beach is the impossible part. For me, being in a wheelchair, I’ve always just been lifted or I’ve jumped on someone’s back and they’ve carried my chair out, and then you’re just stuck in the one spot. But this is creating a literal environment that’s accessible for all kinds of people. What are some of the other applications that you’ve found yourself dipping into or thinking about?
Kelly: You mentioned a good one, weddings and events. A couple of years ago I did my first beach wedding rental in Pacific Beach near where I live. It was so cool. I brought my camera and I got permission and I could hang back from the ceremony and take some photos. It was so special to see the family members, maybe their grandparents or cousin or brother or sister, maybe the bride or groom, anybody can have a disability across their life span. It doesn’t matter. To see that everybody’s loved ones could come to their wedding, their special day, was really cool. Every year we get tons of rentals, and we ship the products across the country, like all the way to the Carolinas, Florida, for example, for those dream beach weddings that people have, and they happen to find us.
Other industries that have been super-interesting to me that I never would have thought is the film industry. You’ll understand this better than most. When you’re filming, it’s never just always in a studio. You have locations. There’s a lot of outdoor locations. And not only just using the Access Trax access mats to provide an access route for actors and crew members, but the film industry was super-interested in the ability for it to help them move their cameras and equipment.
Toby: I always say when they worry about accessibility, “The cameras are on wheels. All the equipment’s on wheels,” so honestly, they’re pretty accessible places, when you think about it. But being in remote locations, where you need to build a fast, portable system of getting from one place to another, this seems perfect.
Kelly: Yeah. It’s been super-fun. I don’t get to be on set hardly ever, it’s the equipment. I deliver it, they set it up and do their thing, and then I pick it up when they’re all done. But I did get to go on location for a Marvel movie.
Kelly: Yeah! To deliver. And it’s so funny because they have, like, secret code names for their movies when you’re going. It so fun to learn things about a new industry. And I’ve worked with Lucas Films, too, for “Star Wars”.
Toby: Wow! It’s amazing that that path, literally, you get to use “path” as your metaphor for life and for this business and how it leads you into so many different places. Like you maybe wouldn’t have seen yourself stepping onto a film set, although you look like you fit in just great.
Toby: Before you know it, you’ll be in a Marvel movie.
Toby: But your application, how did it start from the chicken wire and rain gutters and evolve into what is a—I don’t know, a large Lego system at this point?
Kelly: (laughs) That’s a great question! When it was the handmade prototype, that was when Eric and I, co-founders, were students still in OT school. We still had almost a full year left before we graduated. So we needed of course to get through school and field work and stuff. So I asked my school, “Do you have any grant funding or scholarships?” Because of course as a student you really don’t have a lot of free money lying around. I had to figure out how to pay for the prototyping and manufacturing of this so that we didn’t have to make any out of zip ties and plastic mesh.
My school happened to find out that the company that owned them at the time had a global business plan competition. We were very lucky, right place, right time, for a lot of things. This was one of them. It was the first time anybody from any of our University of Saint Augustine for Health Sciences school had ever competed in this competition. So we applied. We were the only finalists for the U.S. I want to say there were six finalists from around the world. We presented via Zoom back before Zoom got even more popular. (laughs) As we all know. It was so cool. They ended up not being able to decide a ground prize winner, so they split the winnings between the six different groups. So we got a little bit of money for the prototyping.
Toby: Oh, interesting!
Kelly: Yeah. And then the school’s board of directors that summer invited us to present in Saint Augustine, Florida, at their main original campus. I had never been before, so of course I’ll travel and do this cool experience. They ended up surprising us with a matching check from that other grant.
Toby: Look at you!
Kelly: I cried. I was like, “This is so cool!” Because when you create something or feel like you’re on the cusp of something, it’s very daunting to know that the odds are stacked against you financially, resource-wise, time-wise. But to have another organization or person believe in you and to help you on your journey, that was really special. So that’s how we paid for the initial prototyping to get to our next-gen product, which we—it was a manufactured plastic product that isn’t the one we currently use today, but it was like an h-shape, and because it was an h-shape when we tested it out, we quickly realized that it wasn’t universal design. It was very difficult for a person to walk on it because it was a little bit wider of a stance than a normal gait pattern, and then it didn’t allow a person in their wheelchair to do a full 360-degree turn on any mat because there were holes in it, and it would fall in the sand.
So very quickly I redesigned the whole thing myself. The product’s manufacturer we were working with at the time didn’t agree with any of my changes, thought I was going backwards with it.
Toby: Wow! Although it’s your thing? They wanted to come in make design choices based on their expertise?
Kelly: Yeah. Basically, what I think happened is, they found a previous patent that wasn’t currently being used and they copied that design, which was the h-shape. They were supposed to be helping us with the design in general. They came up with this h-shape. It turns out, it looked exactly like something that was already previously patented, but again, it wasn’t a product being manufactured at all. It’s basically called “prior art” in the patent world. And when I changed everything, they didn’t like that. So we had to cut ties with them and do our own thing. You learn through the process of starting a business and of course working with a product. You go through so many iterations. It all comes down to, what does the customer need and what does the customer want? It doesn’t matter what your manufacturer wants, and sadly, it doesn’t matter what you want, really. Of course, it’s all about designing for the people you’re designing it for. And getting their feedback, getting their input constantly.
Toby: How did you do that? Did you have a little core group where you were like, “OK, I’m going to keep testing it with these people”? Or did you have a friend or someone who was in the community?
Kelly: We did a lot of volunteerism. We brought our mats, whatever prototype we had at the time, we would take it to an event where we knew there would be adaptive athletes at. In 2016, when we started this, again, as a school project, the adaptive surfing world and adaptive surfing movement had just started to take hold and gain traction. Because 2015 was the first ever world adaptive surfing championship. In San Diego. I mean, how lucky, again, right people, right time?
Toby: Right attitude!
Kelly: Yeah! So we volunteered at all those events. And I still remain very supportive of the adaptive or para-surfing movement and community and sponsor a lot of events and provide the access. So that was huge for me, being face-to-face with actual users to see, “Does this work for you? What do you recommend? Do you like this? Would you buy it?” Really getting their feedback and seeing it first-hand.
Toby: Your intention was to be an OT and maybe affect a few people’s lives, or at least an individual, on a daily basis, but then you had to shift and go, “Now I’m a business owner/designer/marketer,” and you had to put the OT stuff on the shelf, I’m assuming, and focus on this?
Kelly: Yes, great assumption. Basically, when I graduated in 2017, I was working full-time as a clinician because I had very expensive student loans to pay back, and every other moment I wasn’t working, I was trying to get this business started. At the time, in 2018, in February, I had been graduated for less than six months, my classmate and I officially started the business. And within four months, unfortunately my co-founder decided to take a step back because he was starting a family and he needed to keep his full-time day job with benefits. Which, I totally understand. That then put all of the weight on my shoulders because, if I didn’t carry this thing on, then who would?
Toby: Did you have a moment where you were like, “Oh, gosh, I’m putting a lot at risk here”? You were giving up that solid OT job. But you risked it.
Kelly: Yeah. I think there was no doubt in my mind that I had to keep this going. The sacrifice didn’t really hit me until a couple of years later. “Oh, my gosh, I am turning 32 years old this year. I don’t have my own car. I don’t have my own house. I really have sacrificed a lot over the years as far as salary and stability and things like that.” But back then, when I started this, there was no—I didn’t have time—I didn’t give myself time to think about the consequences and the risks because the impact that I could have felt was too important, to help people. And you started to mention this. As an occupational therapist, as a clinician, I can help maybe 10 clients a day. But as a entrepreneur in assistive tech, I can help millions of people across the country that I may never get to travel to personally. That was very exciting to me, knowing that I could make an impact way larger than what I potentially could have as a clinician.
I’m not saying being a clinician isn’t amazing and isn’t very impactful. It is absolutely, and just being in healthcare in general. However because I was starting this path, I felt that I couldn’t stop the momentum.
Toby: I know the same path in the sense of entertainment. I did my master’s in psychology.
Kelly: Oh, wow!
Toby: And felt I could affect a person or a roomful of people with psychology. But with entertainment, you can affect a world of people. But I find this amazing because I’ve lived in Florida, I grew up in Hawaii.
Toby: Yeah. Surfing was my first sport. I’ve done adaptive surfing. I’ve spent half my life in a wheelchair, half without. The beach was a place that I loved and is now a place that is frustrating because you go and you only can go as far as the parking lot will allow you, or the bike path. But this was always an issue where I thought, “How come they don’t have something?” And you obviously came in and solved the big question mark. The other question mark is, it seems like a lot of material is required in order to make an inaccessible space accessible. You’ve got to bring in palettes of materials? How does that work? Do you have to haul that all in by yourself? Do you need a team?
Kelly: (laughs) Good questions! There are a couple of ways to do it. If it’s a family or a nonprofit that’s putting on a short-term event, maybe for a couple of hours, the mats themselves, each smallest unit is a 3-foot by 3-foot square that’s only an eighth of an inch thick. They only weigh 5.2 pounds each. When you’re doing, let’s say it’s a family, you don’t have to buy as many mats as the actual distance you’re going to go. Most families get between five and 10 of our mats. We do have a shoulder carrying strap that you can hook the mats to because they accordion-fold and stack into a single pile. So if you’re carrying five mats, it’s about 25 or 26 pounds. You can check that as luggage on an airplane, so when you’re traveling you can take it with you. So families have specifically purchased my product when they’re going to Hawaii. It’s pretty cool.
Toby: All you really need is two, right? One to be on, and another to move, and if you really needed to travel and you were going to go to the beach and want to be able to go anywhere, just have two of them and you’re able to access wherever you need to be.
Kelly: Yeah, you don’t need a whole lot. The reason I say five is because when you have fewer than that, the person who is moving the mats have to do a little bit more moving. So if you have more mats and you leave them connected in two batches or two sets, they can drag those in front and it’s a little bit less work in the long run. And the other thing is, let’s say you’re leap-frogging the mats down to whatever area on the beach where you’re going to hang out, typically you want to create a platform out of those mats so you can turn around and adjust yourself. Let’s say the sun moved 30 degrees, you want to turn because you’re hanging out, lying out in the sun. That way you can have a little bit more movement freedom when you get to your destination. But yeah, the concept is there. You only need a bare minimum of two mats if you have a small standard manual chair, for sure.
Toby: Some of the questions that would maybe come up for a user would be, how close can I get to the water with the mat? Does it float?
Kelly: Yes, it does. Because plastic is less dense than water, it does tend to float a little bit when the waves come up. We don’t recommend leaving the mats unattended at the shoreline when the tides come up. (laughs)
Toby: Or they float away.
Kelly: But in general, let’s say it’s an event that will be happening all day or all week long, you can leave the mats out, especially when there’s, say, 50 mats connected together in a straight line and you have a platform. Because they get connected, it’s a lot of weights. The waves won’t pull the mats apart and break them away unless they’re super-strong. And you can stake the mats down for long-term use. There are holes in all four corners, let’s say it’s the National Park Service and they want to have these down for the whole season, they can do that.
Toby: And the interlocking system to connect the mats, is that something that is difficult to do?
Toby: Does it become stronger or looser over time, anything like that?
Kelly: The method of connecting the mats was definitely a head-scratcher when we started this project. We wanted it to be a system that was very easy to use and modular and still lightweight. When the mats are laid out and folded back up, we wanted them to accordion-fold so you didn’t have to disconnect every single square every time. It kind of limited our ability to design something without an engineering brain. What’s lightweight? What’s inexpensive? What’s flexible? What’s resistance to the elements like rain and sand and salt? What is readily available?
We ended up consulting, again, adaptive surfers. “Hey, what do you think about this?” I remember Bruno telling us one day, “Go to a marine shop and just look around on what materials they have there, and you might get an idea?” And then he goes, “Wait a moment, a surfer leash. A surf leash is Velcro, so you know it’s resistant to the elements, it’s lightweight. And it’s already something people understand how to use.” So we started using industrial-grade Velcro.
Toby: To keep the mats interlocked?
Kelly: Yes. They’re reusable. You can quickly un-connect and rearrange the mats and connect them back together using the same hinges. They last a long time, surprisingly. But they’re also very easy to replace if for some reason they fail. It was an all-around really sturdy option. And although it’s not the most beautiful-looking item, that didn’t matter in the minds of our customers as much as cost and functionality.
Toby: You can chrome it out if you really need to.
Toby: You’ve gotten to this stage. Are there plans for the evolution? Are you up at night, at 4 in the morning, like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got a new idea!”
Kelly: (laughs) Just to give some background, ever since I started the company, my North Star goal is to partner with the Paralympics in 2028 because it will be in Los Angeles. Once again, being at the right place at the right time. That gives me time to form those partnerships with organizations that help host the event. We’ve already started that. We serve the USA triathlon national championships, which happen in Long Beach every year in July. They’re the ones who will be hosting the triathlon and para-triathlon at the Olympics. So we’re starting to form those partnerships already.
Toby: The Special Olympics? Is that an option?
Kelly: I have reached out to a couple different folks in that arena. It’s interesting. There has been a nonprofit that worked with a smaller regional Special Olympics event, and they’ve used the mats. There’s differently value there. But I think more folks will use it and benefit from it at the actual Paralympics versus Special Olympics. Special Olympics is a lot more of the intellectual disabilities.
Toby: And it’s also a little bit more contained in the sense of environment.
Kelly: Yeah. There’s always—honestly, you could argue that almost every situation could benefit from having Access Trax.
Kelly: (laughs) But when I’m thinking about really big, pie-in-the-sky long-term goals, it’s the Paralympics that’s the premier thing, for sure.
Toby: I was going to ask if that was a pinnacle for you.
Toby: I do a bit of consulting and things like that, so when I do come across something, I will absolutely keep this in mind.
Kelly: Oh, thank you!
Toby: For events and things like that, where it is just not accessible, how can we make it accessible? And what’s next for you, aside from the goal for the Olympics? Where do you take Access Trax? Is it “Shark Tank”?
Kelly: That’s funny! I have wanted to be on that show. I definitely have a lot of people telling me to try out. But I think at this stage in my business, as big as I make myself seem on the Internet as a company, it’s very humble.
Toby: It’s you!
Kelly: It’s me, and my husband works part-time helping me as well. I feel like “Shark Tank” would want to take too much of my company right now. I have a very much hard line that I need to have the majority ownership, so obviously at least 51%. And I feel like they would want to take 60% or 70% right now. So I’m waiting. We’ll see. I think as far as the next step, this year specifically I’m really focused on doing product improvement in the design as well as lowering the cost it takes to manufacture this in general. We currently manufacture in San Diego and it’s pretty expensive. I want to make it to where I can scale up on this without losing the vision for how to grow the business and introduce more products if need be and expand what I can do. So this year I’m focused on making the product’s surface texture more non-slip, more texturized. I’ve received consulting that we made need to change the way we manufacture it. I’m looking to get either through just cash from business operations or a business loan or a grant to help fund creating the next prototype and then being able to launch that. That’s what I’m focused on this year.
Toby: And I would assume another way people might be able to help support you, aside from using the product, renting or purchasing it, is by putting you in contact with things that will help reach out to as many people as possible that this product will affect because then it will speak for itself. Like you said, you’ll think of a thousand different applications for it. It seems like one of those universal products that starts out specifically for one group, like a lot of things for disability do. I know elevators were originally for other things but the reason they’re everywhere is for people with disabilities. But the majority of people benefit them from.
Kelly: Yes. Exactly.
Toby: I loved wen you said that the personal effect is what drives you more than anything, the fact that you see families being able to come together in a place where they couldn’t otherwise.
Toby: Did your mom get to experience it or see some of your drive and success? She must have been proud of that.
Kelly: My parents, when I was in grad school, moved to the Palm Springs area, California. I was still in San Diego. They didn’t get to come to a lot of my events. I begged them to come to one of my events. I was volunteering at I believe it was a Life Rolls On event one year. Or it could have been—no, it was the US Open Adaptive Surfing championships or the World Adaptive Surfing championships. I finally got my parents to come. Now, my mom had a stroke in 2005, and she didn’t go to the beach again, and I didn’t think about this, truly didn’t think about this, but she hadn’t been on the sand again until that event, where she walked on my Trax. She was walking with a cane, usually, very short distances, otherwise she was using a motorized scooter. So she said, “Yeah, I haven’t been on the beach in many, many years, and I was thinking about it.” That would have been 2017, 2018, I think. So from 2005 to 2018 she hadn’t been at the beach and she was able to come on the beach because of my product.
Toby: And the inspiration was her, essentially, that was the seed for what you’ve now created that has affected so many people’s lives.
Toby: That’s a great accomplishment.
Kelly: I feel like she’s still watching over me and proud of me because there will be the most random things that will happen and there’s no way, the serendipity of it. And I always think, “Thanks, Mom!”
Toby: Right, take it!
Kelly: Yeah. It’s so strange. I never really made that explicit connection until after she had passed. “Whoa, this whole thing is also because of her, me becoming a therapist is because of her and my parents believing in me.” My dad, as much as they were very cautious, like, oh, my gosh, they were more aware of the risk in what I was doing than I was. “Oh, you’re giving up a full-time job with benefits to do this?” But they still believed in me and supported my decision. My dad loaned me money when I first started the business, and I still have the piece of paper on my fridge right now that he wrapped the check in, the envelope, and it says, “Go, Baby, go! Love, Dad.”
Toby: Wow, that’s great.
Kelly: It’s nice to know that especially if a close family member or family members support you, to know that people like that really made an impact in your life and influenced your journey and your success.
Toby: And now you’re getting to pay it forward.
Kelly: Yeah, absolutely.