Caitlin Conner,
amputee model

The Tyrannosaurus thing started during rehab, shortly after Caitlin Conner had her left leg amputated in the wake of a motorcycle accident. The surgical scar reminded her of a row of monstrous teeth; ever since, she’s called the limb “Rex.”

She’s also adopted the ancient predator’s demeanor up to a point, attacking obstacles and ripping them to shreds. But that metaphor only goes so far. Conner is the opposite of a destructive force. She’s spent the six years since her amputation trying to build capacity for herself and everyone else with a disability. Her nonprofit foundation, Be More Adaptive, strives to become the world’s leading clearinghouse for adaptive information, products, resources, and advocacy. She has become a ferocious competitor in cycling, boxing, triathlon, cross-fit, and other sports, and she hopes to give speed skating a shot (an amputee first) before long. Conner also models for a diversity-focused agency and is a single mom (which is a story in itself—more on that here).

So, yeah—she’s not all that dreadful, once you get to know her.

Conner was supposed to be headed down to Ecuador this week to climb Cotopaxi with the Range of Motion Project’s elite team, and as a fundraising gambit she had pledged to hike the 19,000-foot peak in her full body T-Rex suit. The pandemic put the kibosh on that expedition, unfortunately, so Conner will be climbing a peak in Texas as part of ROMP’s virtual Cotopaxi climb next weekend. Will the dinosaur outfit be involved? We had to know.

The obvious place to start is: Are you going to wear the T-Rex costume on your hike next week?
I am. For real. That was the plan for Ecuador as well, but actually I get a little bit of a break because I’m not going to be doing as long of a hike. But we’re still planning to do Ecuador next year, and I’m still planning to do what I promised. We’ve had to change and adapt our plans like crazy, but the idea is that #WeStillClimb. And next year it will be even sweeter when we get the chance to climb in Ecuador.

Caitlin Conner,
amputee model

What’s been the toughest thing the climbing team has had to adapt to?
We’ve taken the hardest hit fundraising-wise. At first, before COVID became an issue, the question was how much do I need to fundraise to get myself down to Ecuador, and how much do I need to fundraise to actually help someone else get a prosthesis? Then you throw in all of the economic hardship and pain and suffering that the entire world has gone through this year, and you get slapped with the fact that it’s going to be really hard to fundraise as a nonprofit this year. So what can we do to adapt to that, and what can we do to change? The T-Rex suit was part of that process. I felt like I needed something a little extra to get people involved. (You can donate here, BTW.)

ROMP was really good at coming up with an alternative that would be as beneficial as possible to us. It took some time to adapt, and we’re still adapting our plans, because now we’ve got wildfires. We’ve had everything you can possibly imagine thrown at the team this year, along with the rest of the world. But I’m a firm believer that adversity creates progress, and I honestly think that everything we’ve faced this year is going to change how we move forward in the world. And probably for the better, honestly, because a lot of things needed to be changed. A lot of things needed a spotlight on them.

Including disability? I’ve been asking this question all year: Has the pandemic created more awareness or understanding of disability? Do you think it has created opportunities for amputees to take a leadership role in showing people how to adapt?
I do think the general public has had their eyes opened a bit, but I still think they have their eyes and ears very closed. At any given point in your life, almost everyone can and will obtain a disability. Whether you’re born with a disability or you obtain it later by trauma, injury, or just old age—at some point you will encounter disability personally. If people aren’t trying to understand it, they’re not just hurting people who currently have disabilities—they’re hurting themselves.

I also hope there’s more understanding that mental health is very important. You’re hearing people say, “This is so hard, I’m stuck in my home all day, I can’t go anywhere. I just want to see people and do things.” That’s disability in a nutshell. There are people who just want to go out and experience the world who just can’t because the world either is not accessible to them or accepting of them. I honestly hope that this year becomes a major catalyst and kind of opens the door to the adaptive community on many different levels.

How could that message be driven home?
One of the things that I’m doing with my nonprofit, Be More Adaptive, is to create a database that has literally all the adaptive resources in the world categorized and searchable for the public. So that when anyone gets a disability, even temporarily—even if you just sprain your ankle or are recovering from surgery—and you suddenly you need a resource, you can learn what your options are while you’re out.

The adversity of COVID actually became a catalyst for this project. We were working with the Colorado School of Mines, and it was supposed to be a student project for them to help us build this database. But then school got canceled. That became a blessing in disguise, because then we had four professors who couldn’t teach, so they took up the project themselves. They started the database, so now we have the bones of our database to provide these resources in one place.

When will that resource become available to people?
I would love for it to be accessible some time next year. But it’s going to take us time and volunteers to organize and capture that data. The professors are back in school, so we’ve put it back in as a project for the students to pick up. Until then we’ve got to do a lot of footwork on our own. And I do have a day job besides the nonprofit.

I hate day jobs.
Oh, I know. Day jobs are the worst.

One other thing I think we can do besides the database is actually to create simulations for people to experience disability. Whether it’s having to go to a movie and turning off the sound, or maybe you aren’t allowed to get out of a wheelchair for an entire day—go do your normal activities and let’s see how you feel about it. If you literally make it real for people, even for a moment, maybe they start to understand and hopefully respect it. And hopefully they start coming up with some innovative ideas to make life more accessible.

Are there models for that type of program?
It’s something that can be done, it’s just not widely accepted. I read an article about some school kids that actually went to their city council and said, “For an entire week, we’d like you to do your normal activities from a wheelchair.” They had to experience their city and understand it from that perspective so they could start making the city more accessible. I don’t see why we don’t do more of that.

Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance does training for adaptive coaching in the fitness world. They have you experience different levels of disability. You have to sit in a rowing machine and row with one arm, or row with no legs. Simulations are out there, but it’s not done to a large enough scale.

It feels like you’re describing a process of blurring the line between the categories of able-bodied and disabled.
I started a program with the modeling agency I work with, and it’s called the “My Name Is . . . . “ movement. It’s the concept of dropping labels, whatever those labels may be. They’re not labels you choose, they’re labels that others impose on you. If you can go through the effort to learn somebody’s name, then you get beyond calling them by a label. It’s the same thing with disability. If you go through the effort to at least attempt to understand someone’s experience, and you come to each other with respect and understanding and the commitment to learn—I will never understand everything about the hearing impaired community or the visually impaired community, but I can make the effort to understand what their lives are like and try to make them easier.

Athletics and outdoor challenges are one of the main vehicles for breaking down those barriers, but not everybody is really passionate about those activities. Is there a danger in placing too much emphasis on the image of disabled people as great athletes?
That’s an important question. Before I lost my leg, I stayed away from sports. I wasn’t very good at sports. I was the one that the ball always found my face. It wasn’t until after I lost my leg that I got into them and actually embraced it.

A lot of that for me was accepting that it’s okay to fail—accepting that it’s not always going to go right the first time. Growing up, I had the false impression that people are natural-born athletes. What you don’t see is that kid going home and their parent practicing with them, or maybe they actually have the drive because that’s something they really enjoy and they practice on their own. I didn’t have that, and it wasn’t instilled in me. It was a struggle for me. So I think it’s very important to understand that not everybody has to like it. Maybe your passion is adaptive cooking. Maybe your passion is something different, so that’s what you should pursue. I’m also an artist. I went to school for vocal arts. I enjoy painting. Sports are not everything to everyone, and they don’t have to be.

But I do think it’s incredibly important to understand how your health affects you in more ways than just physically. Sometimes getting out, even if you suck at whatever you’re attempting, just the fact that you fell down and got back up again does amazing things for your brain and your well-being.

Any time you’re faced with adversity, you either rise above or you fall below. So I really hope this year opens some doors for the adaptive community.

Find Caitlin Conner on Facebook and Instagram.