By age 29, Andrew Shelley had secured himself a solid education and a plum job as a systems engineer for an advanced technology corporation. But he still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing in his life: adventure. Defying his degenerative muscular disease, his 90-pound body and the skepticism of his own family, Shelley clocked out of his occupation for good and set off to see the world, exploring New Zealand, Cambodia, Thailand, India and Dubai in a Frontier X5 all-terrain power wheelchair from Magic Mobility and Innovation in Motion. Now at age 31, Shelley is rolling his documentary film, Beyond the Chair, into the festival circuit. ABILITY’s David Radcliff met with Shelley along with filmmakers Dusty Duprel and Rachel Pandza to discuss their remarkable journey.
David Radcliff: Drew, this film seems particularly epic in the sense that you were feeling frustrated with your own body and your limitations and just decided to pack up and travel the world. How did you even come to that decision?
Andrew Shelley: I have muscular dystrophy, which is a progressive wasting away of the muscles. So I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t walk anymore and needed a power chair. I really didn’t want one, and I kept putting it off. But once I finally did get it, I realized, “Wow, I can go everywhere! This thing could really take me around the world!”
Radcliff: That must’ve been pretty liberating.
Shelley: Yeah. I was at a point at which I really wanted more out of my life. I was tired of doing the same thing every day, and I knew I wasn’t going where I wanted to, so I quit my job and said, “I’m gonna get out of here.”
Radcliff: And you’re surprisingly non-chalant about that decision. In the film, your mom just says, “Andrew called me up and said he was going to travel around the world.” It was really that simple?
Rachel Pandza: Well, I think his mom was pretty freaked out at first.
Shelley: She and her friend had this crazy idea that they’d follow me and be in all the same cities that I’d be in, maybe meet up once a day or if I needed anything. But I thought, “no thanks.” Because the whole purpose of these things is to get away from your parents—to figure it out for yourself.
Dusty Duprel: I was Drew’s roommate, so I think Drew’s parents had assumed we were going along with him to help him travel. They’d say, “I’m sure he’ll be fine because he’s with his crew.” But anytime we’d explain that we weren’t there to help Drew, just to observe, either they didn’t want to hear us or they pretended not to.
Radcliff: And what was your feeling, Drew, about having a crew around? It’s not exactly as if you were going out there with strangers. These are friends of yours.
Shelley: Sometimes it was frustrating, because they intentionally weren’t there to help me, so they’d stand back and film me doing things myself. But that’s how I wanted it. I wanted to have to provide for myself and see if I could do it.
Duprel: The only times we would help would be if there were some kind of medical emergency, but not in dayto-day activities. It even got to the point where we’d thought Drew was relying on our companionship more often than he was actually alone, so we started staying at separate hotels, away from him. His mom would call and sometimes we’d have to be careful what to tell her.
Shelley: I think a lot of parents, especially parents of people with disabilities, have this fear of letting go of their kids. They want to be there to help them and protect them. But really the best thing for anyone is independence. I’ve traveled with my parents before, through Europe, but it’s only so much fun with your parents, you know?
Duprel: The thing is, Drew was a 29-year-old guy at the time, but this was really his first rite of passage, in a way. And he had to get out and be on the other side of the world in order for it to happen.
Pandza: I think a lot of people actually perceived this project to be more about recklessness than about independence. It just wasn’t understandable to them. “Why would you endanger yourself doing everyday things on top of this international trip?”
Radcliff: And how long was this trip, altogether?
Duprel: Two months. It was originally going to be longer. You have to understand, though, that just sitting in a chair all day is a piece of work for Drew. It requires constant muscle activity, and then there’s malnutrition, constant travel, exposure to airplanes with poor circulation, so his body pretty much tapped out after two months.
Shelley: But I could go off-roading and kayaking and backpacking on this trip and do all of these crazy things, and then I’d go back to my hotel and slip and fall in the shower. I mean, everything is dangerous if you really look at it.
Pandza: I think the trick was just to trust that the right things would happen and not be afraid and not hold ourselves back. First just go out there, take the trip. Then you’ll figure it out once you get there, rather than come up with all of these excuses not to go beforehand.
Duprel: On the surface, as filmmakers, the concept was interesting to us—a guy with a disability in a wheelchair traveling the world by himself—but then, as we started to film everything, we really got to see that there was a lot more to why this trip came about in the first place. I think Drew was looking for solutions to his work, to his relationship with a girl, and this general battle of “where is my life heading?” Everybody gets to a place where you wake up one day and you realize, this isn’t the path I want to be on. So I think that was really the start of it.
Radcliff: That sort of self-evaluation speaks well of you, Drew. Especially now, when a lot of people might not be happy with their jobs or their lives, but they maintain a status quo because they don’t know what else is out there. But this kind of adventure—I mean, how do you even fund a project like this?
Duprel: Drew paid for his own trip, and then the three of us formed an LLC and got some investors. But our budget was just enough to film this project. So there were many times when we were moving without money or food, and then the next week we’d find an investor. In that way, the film really mirrors the trip itself. We left not knowing what was going to happen, and answers and solutions presented themselves as we went forward.
Pandza: We also realized, looking back at this project, that Drew’s story really is similar to the hero’s journey you see in most films. A lot of things in his personal life were causing turmoil and moving him to go on this trip, and he has a lot of ups and downs during it and comes back a little different than before. So I think that’s something audiences will really respond to.
Radcliff: Were there a lot of difficulties about this trip that you didn’t predict? Anything you would handle differently if you had to do it all over again?
Shelley: I’d probably plan more. I’m the sort of person who tries to fly by the seat of his pants, but I think what I’d really want is more time. I’d like six months to fit in all of the things I wanted to do. I would’ve liked to have spent a week in each city instead of a day or two.
Pandza: I think people in this country are very acclimated to not having a lot of change and not traveling in the way that Drew did. So what we were doing was a little scary for people to begin with. “You’re not staying in a hotel? You don’t have a plan? You’re going off-roading?”
Shelley: Yeah, people thought I was crazy when I told them I was planning to stay in hostels. I couldn’t even get friends to come with me. “Why would you want to stay in a hostel? Hostels are dirty.” But they’re actually really cool places to meet people.
Duprel: And the thing about hostels is, you’re overseas and you don’t know anybody, and then all of a sudden there’s someone from your country there. So you have an instant friendship, a real connection, even if it’s only for a day or two.
Radcliff: How accessible were the places you visited, in terms of disability accommodation?
Shelley: Most of the hostels were actually pretty good and had accessible bathrooms and showers. And when I was researching, I noticed that most places have a couple of steps going into the building, so my dad made me these lightweight aluminum ramps that I could just carry with me. Those were sometimes lifesavers. It was too expensive to rent a wheelchair van in most places, so I used the ramps a lot to get into taxis.
Duprel: The real problem is that Drew is girl-crazy. So it didn’t matter if a place was accessible or not accessible, if there were girls in there, that’s where he wanted to stay. There was one hotel where he couldn’t get to the bathroom, but he wanted to stay there more than anywhere else, because of the girls. We spent a whole day crossing Mumbai just to find out that one place wasn’t accessible at all.
Radcliff: Drew, I know you were an engineer before this trip and that your father is an engineer too. Are you still doing any of that kind of work now?
Shelley: No, not anymore. Now I just want to share my story with people.
Pandza: Right now he’s writing a book and trying to get into motivational speaking. I think that’s something he realized when he came back from the trip: he didn’t want to be an engineer anymore.
Radcliff: Were the people you met in your travels uneasy around you or did you find them to be pretty welcoming and accepting of your disability?
Shelley: Very welcoming. It seemed like everybody would gather around me. Some people would just stare, you know? Sometimes you’d have 50 people around you, staring. A lot of people would help lift me into the taxis or help take my chair apart.
Pandza: People were actually a lot nicer than I’d expected. They would see Drew, befriend him, help him, talk to him. I think there’s a common bond in which Drew brings something to people and people bring something to him. And some people were very interested in learning about his chair, even if there was a language barrier.
Radcliff: That’s interesting, because I think a lot of people would just assume that once travelers with disabilities leave their homeland they won’t get much assistance. But it sounds like you guys got a lot of help, so that had to be encouraging.
Pandza: I think even moreso in the third world countries, actually. In Cambodia, the people were just amazingly nice and always wanted to help. Little kids were coming up and were curious about Drew. Everyone was so generous.
Duprel: There was less concern that Drew had a disability and a lot more interest in his chair and how it worked.
Radcliff: It’s always interesting to me when family sometimes becomes more of an obstacle than the outside world. In the end, it was your family you had to persuade, and in the outside world everybody was fine.
Duprel: I think that also carried over to Drew’s career choice, actually. His family might tell him, “You need to be an engineer because you’re not going to be able to use your body.” But it’s really all about overcoming all these things to be your own person. Everybody has to go through that, but Drew has to go through it more.
Most people never stop to say, “What will make me happy?” It’s usually more about, “This is what I need to do to survive. This is what I’m going to do when I finish school.” So there’s never much time to think, who do I really want to be? And in the film and on the trip, we got to see Drew try to answer some of these kinds of questions. A week in, he was talking to people about how they survive, about how they make money.
Pandza: And as society and Drew’s friends and family are all trying to help him find the “right” way by choosing the easiest way, they’re also conforming him to what he may not want to do at all. I think that’s part of what will help make the film successful. It’s about the American story. Go to college, get a job, and then sometimes you find out you’re not happy or you’re doing things other people told you to do. And you don’t have a chance to sit down and rethink your life.
Shelley: Yeah. My dad is an engineer, his dad was an engineer, my uncles are engineers. I was always very hands-on, so engineering was something I was good at. I liked it, and I liked being around like-minded people and having a good level of responsibility at Lockheed Martin. But I knew it wasn’t enough.
Duprel: There’s a different mindset an engineer might have in terms of evaluating his life. It’s generally about science and practicality, it’s not about art. Drew’s brother has muscular dystrophy as well, so I think their parents were just really interested in trying to make a stable life for them.
Pandza: In a way, I think Drew’s brother was really the one other person who understood the point of this trip.
Duprel: Yeah, I think some of Drew’s doctors thought maybe he had a deathwish or something. But Drew’s brother was the one who understood that Drew used to be able to do a lot more than he’s able to do now. So this trip was really a way to try to get some of that back.
Shelley: My brother isn’t quite as adventurous as I am, so I don’t know if he’d do a trip like this on his own. But I think he’s proud of me. Today I don’t think I’d have the strength to be able to do that trip again.
Radcliff: So, no sequel?
Duprel: Well, Drew doesn’t really like the cameras. But we’d like to try to spin this off to a TV series if we can actually get the proper funding. We filmed almost every second of this trip, so there’s a lot of footage.
Pandza: 360 hours of footage. So we’ve been reliving those two months over and over.
Radcliff: How has a trip like that changed your relationships with one another?
Duprel: It’s really like a family, you know? I think we got to see the best and worst in everybody, and we ended up just having to accept it. We’ve been working on this project for three years, so sometimes the relationships are strained, but they’re still strong relationships. And when Drew first proposed this trip, I didn’t even think of it as a big story right away, because I knew who Drew was. This is just what he does.
Radcliff: And you’re all still glad you went through with it?
Shelley: Oh yeah. I have a sense of accomplishment now, and I’ve proven that I can do something like this, so now I figure I can go do even more. It was definitely worth it.