Rising Above 

Hot air balloons are more accessible for people with disabilities than numerous buildings on the University of Montana campus, charges the president of the Alliance for Disability and Students at UM (ADSUM.)

Travis Hoffman sustained a spinal cord injury a couple years ago, and is now challenged just getting around campus. In an effort to bring awareness to the lack of curb cuts and what he calls “spotty” access to campus buildings, Hoffman invited a wheelchair accessible balloon to the UM campus.

Serena’s Song, a hot air balloon that boasts a larger basket, a wheelchair-accessible door and an “envelop” that holds about 70 percent more air than a regular hot air balloon, is the first wheelchair-ready airship in the world. Free rides were to be offered starting at 7 AM, but due to gusty Hellgate breezes, launches were delayed. Still, nearly 20 people with disabilities had the opportunity to sail above the UM campus.

Veteran pilot Phil Gray has been operating Serena’s Song for 10 years. “It’s a really great opportunity for people who face obstacles in their daily life to be able to get up in the air and look around,” says the 30-year hot air balloon veteran. Gray and a handful of others travel the country, providing rides in their balloon for people with disabilities. To date, more than 10,000 people have ridden Serena’s Song into the air. “Not bad for a couple of old guys,” says Gray.

“If one committed man can make a hot air balloon accessible so I can float above campus in my wheelchair, then ADSUM and the other coalition members ought to be able to convince the university and city to make campus more accessible,” says Hoffman.

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