KARIM Ladki knows firsthand how quickly life can change.
In 2007, at age 21, he experienced a car crash in Kelowna, resulting in a C7 vertebrae fracture. Having broken his neck, he faced the possibility of paralysis. A self-described "adrenaline junkie," the prospect of living the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair was all too real for the following three months he spent in recovery.
While Ladki, a 25-year-old North Vancouver resident and Handsworth secondary grad, fully recovered from his injury, he counts his blessings and isn't blind to the fact that many others aren't so lucky. He's since dedicated his life to helping others live theirs to the fullest, regardless of their level of ability.
Ladki is the founder of 9Lives Adventures, an adventure tour operator catering to people with physical disabilities. Its mission is to create opportunities for, as well as fight against the limitations often set upon, people coping with disabilities, and change the public's perception of adventure travel. Since its founding last year, 9Lives is continuing to grow as well as "raise lots of eyebrows" among members of the general public, says Ladki.
9Lives offers a different weekend tour every month, typically to the Whistler area, as well as one-off special events. Clients receive their doctor's consent before engaging in the activities, examples of which include bungee jumping, skydiving, ATVing and wind tunnel flying. All offerings are fully accessible and include the adrenaline sports, transportation, meals and accommodations.
The idea for 9Lives was the result of the friendship forged between Ladki and Matt Thola, a Victoria resident.
"He is a good friend of mine that I met in my apartment building," says Ladki. "He has the exact same C7 fracture, the exact same titanium cage scars and surgery but potentially he's in a wheelchair for the rest of his life."
The same age, Ladki and Thola, whose injury was the result of a car crash, also shared outgoing personalities, and a love of travel and adventure.
"He showed me a video of him skydiving as an able body and that really struck a chord with me," says Ladki. "He was like, 'You know I really want to do that again at some point in my life.' So, I told him to pack up his bags."
Ladki and Thola went on a Western Canadian tour, engaging in extreme sports as well as being invited to go skydiving with Dale Elliott, Australia's first paraplegic solo skydiver.
"That was a very inspirational moment," says Ladki. "We ended up using that opportunity to create an itinerary for people around Australia. We rated lots of hostels and rated all these tours that we took and said how hard it was, how easy it was, if it was accessible, if the staff was helpful, etc."
Sharing their experiences online, the duo received a strong level of support, seeing people ask for more information, as well as express interest in experiencing similar activities for themselves.
Ladki was further inspired to launch 9Lives by the 2010 Paralympics, held locally, which allowed him to witness the potential of what can be achieved by individuals labelled as "disabled."
9Lives Adventures is continuing to make a difference in the lives of those it serves, including Thola.
"I've seen, just from hanging out with him, how much of an effect it's had on him," says Ladki.
"The biggest accomplishment in my life is seeing Matt's life turned around like that. He just got really excited and stoked about his life. Seeing other people with other different stories? Everyone is so different. . . . You see their new vision, their new breath of air and that's just an addictive thing for me, just to see that and provide it," he adds.
While 9Lives tours are catered towards those with physical challenges, they're open to able-bodied people as well.
"That's the whole thing that I saw as a big opportunity was not to segregate it into specifically just people with disabilities and just able bodies because the exchange that people get hanging out with each other is just phenomenal," says Ladki. "You get a lot of able-bodied people really reflecting on their life hanging out with these guys and vice versa."
While 9Lives is a business, charging a fee for service, Ladki's hope is to create a 9Lives foundation to ensure access to tours is open to all, regardless of their financial situation.
For his efforts, the Rick Hansen Foundation has named Ladki a medal-bearer in the Rick Hansen 25th Anniversary Relay, seeing him and Thola cycle 40-60 kilometres per day in its final leg in May 2012.
Other upcoming plans for 9Lives include expanding to offer international tours. At home, Ladki is working towards the creation of wheelchair skills workshops by partnering with local park and recreation commissions. The hope is that by next year, they'll be able to offer wheelchair skateboarding, programs for both youth and adults, also known as hardcore sitting. Ladki is also working with some American organizations to host related events here and grow the sport in Canada. Finally, Ladki has connected with the Canadian Paralympic snowboard team and will offer ski and snowboard workshops in Whistler in March 2012.
For more information on 9Lives Adventures, visit www.9livesadventures.com.