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The Wayfaring Band poses for a group photo while waiting to enter the gates of the opening ceremony at the 2023 Special Olympics in Berlin, Germany. (Provided by Sophia Calderón)

Growing up in a world that often sees differences as deficiencies, Shannon Brennan long ago learned to question the things that set her apart from others rather than embrace them. 

For Brennan, 37, those differences play out in the way she learns. The two halves of her brain don’t always communicate with each other, she said, so she sometimes struggles to understand speech. Brennan was diagnosed with a genetic condition known as Fragile X syndrome at age 12, and is sometimes anxious and can quickly become overstimulated in large crowds or when bombarded by loud noises.

But last week, when Brennan found herself more than 5,000 miles away from her home in Aurora meeting people who navigate the world with their own set of special needs, she began to look at her differences, well, differently.

“I just have challenges, but (my body) ain’t broken,” she said. “It’s fine. It just works in a different way. Just because it works differently than yours doesn’t mean it’s broken or damaged or anything.”

Brennan set off on a 10-day trip with The Wayfaring Band earlier this month, Berlin-bound to volunteer at the 2023 Special Olympics. The Denver-based nonprofit shepherds groups of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, along with their typical peers who want to learn how to be better allies, on excursions across the country and world. The getaways give adults with disabilities an opportunity to branch out of their everyday lives — much of which are often guided by other people like parents and job coaches — to explore new cultures and learn more about themselves.

Those kinds of treks can be rare for people with disabilities because so much of the world falls short in accommodating their needs, said Kendall Hagar, interim executive director of The Wayfaring Band. 

“Every human being should belong in our world,” said Hagar, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. “And we believe that folks with disabilities are not limited in their capacity to enjoy the full human experience and all of the things that that entails.”

The nonprofit, which has been whisking adults with disabilities to all kinds of destinations for nearly 11 years, also pushes for those individuals to be treated as the adults they are — rather than children. 

“We’re actively fighting against that infantilization by doing very adult things,” Hagar said.

Members of The Wayfaring Band learn a coordinated dance at the Special Olympics’ opening ceremony together. (Provided by Sophia Calderón)

On past trips, that has included clinking drinks at biker bars and attending concerts. In Berlin, band members tried schnitzel for the first time, shared a meter-long tray full of beers, checked out a marketplace, and visited both the Anne Frank Center and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

They also watched Special Olympics athletes compete in swimming, soccer, cycling and equestrian events and made new friends from all over the world as they volunteered at the Games, welcoming attendees, offering directions to spectators and energizing crowds.

Brennan, who was visiting Germany for the first time, initially clammed up while thinking about introducing herself to volunteers and athletes from other countries. But with help from another band member, she overcame her hesitation and struck up conversations with strangers, exchanging flashy commemorative pins with many of them. 

At the start of the Games, each team of athletes received pins decorated to reflect their country, with the idea that they would be traded with other teams, carrying on a tradition that dates back to the 1920s. The Wayfaring Band brought their own pins, breaking through language barriers as they approached athletes and gestured at pins to swap.

Justin Pressel, another band member, gathered 13 pins, which he fastened to a lanyard, and in his time in Berlin got to know people from Israel, Japan and North Macedonia, among other places.

Justin Pressel, a member of The Wayfaring Band, watches a soccer match between Germany and Korea at the 2023 Special Olympics in Berlin, Germany. (Provided by Sophia Calderón)

Pressel, 32, previously traveled to New Mexico and Seattle with The Wayfaring Band but had never ventured out of the country. His voyage to Berlin with 11 other band members marked one of his biggest steps beyond his comfort zone.

“I’m used to being alone at home playing video games,” said Pressel, who lives in Denver and also works full time at King Soopers.

He was in awe over an opening ceremony that featured lively, acrobatic performances and a parade of at least 170 countries, and he became mesmerized by soccer matches that were punctuated with slide tackles and collisions.

Pressel, who has cerebral palsy, had fun getting to know his fellow travelers and learning about their differences — all while banding together with volunteers, fans and athletes at the Games to cheer everyone on.

“Even though they’re rooting for (their) country, everyone’s the same,” Pressel said. “They’re all for the Special Olympics. That’s what’s great.”

“We are different and yet we are all on the same team”

Brennan’s trip overseas stopped before it even started. A three-and-a-half month battle for an updated passport ended with her leaving for Berlin the day after she was supposed to fly out with her bandmates. After the U.S. Department of State returned the initial application she mailed in, citing that it was incomplete without much more explanation, she struggled to find an available appointment to renew her passport in person. She eventually secured an appointment in Kiowa, 45 minutes from her home, and paid an extra fee to expedite shipping.

Brennan waited a few more weeks while her passport was being processed and couldn’t get an answer from the passport agency about when she would receive her passport. The week she was slated to leave, she called U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office to help rush the delivery of her passport. After more waiting and more frustration, she finally received her passport the day of her flight but not in time to catch it.

(From left) Justin Pressel, Shannon Brennan and Kendall Hagar, all part of The Wayfaring Band, pose at a Special Olympics volunteer site after handing out noisemakers and Olympia Park maps to spectators during the Games in Berlin, Germany. (Provided by Sophia Calderón)

“It’s confusing,” Brennan said. “It’s really hard. Anybody but especially anybody who has a disability or some kind of difference, it’s really, really difficult to understand.”

That hiccup was the first of several the group encountered leading up to and during their time abroad as they noticed and experienced accessibility challenges at the Special Olympics — the one place designed specifically for people with disabilities.

Their concerns started with flashing lights and loud music during the Games’ opening ceremony — special effects that can be harmful to some people with sensory challenges. Band members also noted that bathroom spaces were not wide enough to fit a wheelchair while some wheelchair-accessible ramps were often far from the areas where spectators filed in to watch events.

And in Berlin, a steep set of stairs down to the subway and narrow sidewalks created additional hurdles for people who rely on wheelchairs.

“Accessibility is hard,” Hagar said, “and it takes work. And even folks that are doing the work still have learning to do. And I can’t imagine how much work it was to put on this massive global event and the logistics that it involved, and there’s always room for improvement.”

Other challenges for groups of travelers during previous trips and even at home have been prompted by people rather than places. For instance, while The Wayfaring Band was exploring Seattle last summer, a woman collecting tickets for a ferry ride belittled the troupe as they boarded.

Shannon Brennan, a member of The Wayfaring Band, stops to trade pins with an athlete from Korea’s soccer team during the 2023 Special Olympics in Berlin, Germany. (Provided by Sophia Calderón)

“She was saying things like, ‘Why are you so slow? Are you an idiot? What’s wrong with you?’” Hagar recalls.

That moment sticks with Pressel, who kept walking but grew quietly angry as the woman continued her outburst.

But the accessibility setbacks the group faced in Berlin didn’t completely cloud their trip. Instead, band members encouraged one another to be open about their needs and be brave enough to ask for help.

Traveling with the band led Sophia Calderón, a freelance photographer who shadowed band members and documented their days in Berlin, to be more aware of how she carries herself and the ways she views spaces.

“I’m also in this space of my life where I’m ready to unlearn a lot of the structures that society has implemented in our minds,” Calderón said, adding that she wants people to understand that individuals with disabilities deserve autonomy and can give help as easily as they receive it.

As a group in Berlin, The Wayfaring Band formed its own sense of community during their nearly week and a half of travels — one that surrounded Brennan with the kinds of meaningful friends she’s been searching for, especially after a recent divorce chipped away at her ability to trust others.

“They really helped build that for me, at least like the first building block of trusting people a little bit more,” she said.

And they have helped her embrace the differences she has spent so much of her life questioning.

“The culture of our group is the way that I wish the world operated, where folks are just on a regular basis supporting each other with whatever they need and remembering that we are different and yet we are all on the same team,” Hagar said. “We all want happiness. We all want peace in our lives. We all want a life of adventure and beauty, and … we can lean on each other to get all of those things. And it actually makes it more magical when we get to do it all together.”