Faculty Spotlight: Valdez Makes Travel Easier for People With Disabilities

April 11, 2022 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

Rupa Valdez believes everybody should have the opportunity to travel, whether to a new local restaurant or a new country – and she means every body.

Valdez, an associate professor focusing on engineering in health care at the University of Virginia, established Blue Trunk Foundation six years ago to collect information and research that would improve experiences for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. She did so out of a desire to help others, but also for personal reasons.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Valdez had been an active young adult and, although her family didn’t leave town much when she was a child, she and her sister fell in love with travel first through books and then through trips both locally and abroad.

But traveling later became problematic.

“I was a dancer, and swam and ran,” she said. “I ended up having one injury and then another with different tendons in my body. I first experienced the impact of this condition in my late 20s, and by my early 30s, I was living with widespread chronic pain.

“When my daughter was about a year old, things got really, really pronounced, and I started using a wheelchair.”

Valdez holds joint appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and the School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences. She is also a core faculty member for UVA’s Global Studies program and the Disability Studies Initiative. She became interested in the emerging field of health systems engineering while an industrial and systems engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since Valdez first began living with chronic health conditions in her early 20s, her personal experiences have shaped not only her work with Blue Trunk but also her research, teaching and broader advocacy.

Today, her research involves understanding the need for and designing useful systems to support people living with disabilities and chronic health conditions. She was recently awarded the Jack A. Kraft Innovator Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society for her pioneering work in this area.

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Rupa Valdez in a blue shirt and jeans sits in a wheelchair smiling
Valdez’s reduced mobility also has required her to find accessibility in travel, including identifying accommodating places to stay.

“The work I wanted to do was to figure out how to support people who are living with chronic health conditions as they manage their health in home and community spaces, [and] how to design systems to support them and their families,” said Valdez, who’s a member of UVA’s Disability Advocacy and Action Committee, a subcommittee of the Diversity Council.

For the last decade, she has had to adapt the way she works in order to fulfill her academic duties, such as by using dictation. Her reduced mobility also has required her to find accessibility in travel – for example, attending academic conferences. That has included identifying accommodating places to stay.

“It just became more difficult to find information about places and spaces that were accessible,” she said. “I was having to call many places, and then we’d show up and find out it wasn’t accessible. I remember thinking, ‘I just wish there was a place to go online where I could find information that I needed about accessibility.’”

Thus she started Blue Trunk Foundation, fitting the nonprofit work in around her other tasks. The foundation’s focus is a website that includes information for travelers, businesses and educators.

The website is still a work in progress, Valdez said, because the disability community is so diverse. She has had conversations with many people to determine what they need.

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Valdez stressed that accessibility is one dimension of inclusion, and she tells businesses that there might be other small steps they can take to make their spaces and services more accessible. Maybe a restaurant has an extensive gluten-free menu, for example, or caters to other dietary restrictions. Maybe a place has lower light or regular quiet periods that would be helpful to somebody who needs less sensory stimuli.

Co-founder Claire Wellbeloved-Stone currently serves as executive director, with Valdez continuing to serve as president of Blue Trunk. Together they continue to work with a team of advisers to grow the organization in terms of its consulting services, educational programming, and its resources for both businesses and travelers.

Valdez, who also serves on the board of directors for the American Association of People with Disabilities, testified Feb. 3 on Capitol Hill before the House Ways & Means Committee’s subcommittee on health. She spoke for the hearing “Bridging Health Equity Gaps for People with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions,” about how the disabled community, like other groups, experiences health inequities.

Seeing disability and chronic health conditions as often overlapping, “like a Venn diagram,” Valdez puts a disability lens on a lot of her work. She has expanded her teaching to include Disability in Contemporary Society, among other courses. She’s also working on a curriculum for health care professionals on providing care to people with disabilities, including system-wide training at UVA Health. And recently, she advised how to set up accessible coronavirus vaccination clinics in partnership with local organizations.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications