A wheelchair and pursuit of knowledge: Mauritius man travels 11,000 miles to Phoenix

Jean-Francois Favory works out at Ability360. He traveled across the world to learn about accessibility, information he plans to bring home to the island country of Mauritius. (Photo by Brooke Coltelli/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – At 7 years old, Jean-Francois Favory walked into a government hospital for a surgical procedure in his home country of Mauritius. When he woke up, he learned the unthinkable: He no longer had use of his legs.

During the procedure, a medical error left Favory a paraplegic. He left the hospital in a wheelchair with no instructions on how to face this new challenge.

The lack of guidance inspired a life of advocacy and his pursuit of change took him across the world, to the Valley’s Ability360.

Mauritius, an island off the coast of southeast Africa, is a country that offers an abundance of beaches and wildlife. It is a paradise to some, but for a child with a disability, it is not ideal, Favory said. The island, approximately 11,000 miles from Phoenix, lacks accessibility for those with disabilities.

“Public transportation is not accessible for people in a wheelchair,” he said. “Since I’ve been here (in the United States), I’m really enjoying the bus and the light rail because it’s easy to get on both of them and go wherever you want.”

Using public transportation is an anomaly for Favory and he finds public transportation amusing. And refreshing,

“Having access to everything, is really, really exciting,” Favory said.

Although now a grown man enjoying these new opportunities, Favory has not forgotten the challenges he experienced as a child. With no assistance, his parents relied on trial and error to discover what best suited Favory’s new lifestyle. The lack of support for people with disabilities in Mauritius is what drives Favory to dedicate his life to advocacy.

In the fall of 2016, Favory applied to be a part of the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship Program. Among the 60,000 applicants, he was one of 1,000 chosen. A rigorous program, the first portion includes traveling to the United States and spending a five-week period studying at a university. Once completed, 100 of the 1,000 are selected to spend an additional six weeks in the United States to further their studies. Based on the individual’s work plan, goals and objectives, the participant is paired with an organization or company somewhere in the United States.

Favory was chosen to stay for an additional six weeks. He was paired with a non-profit corporation in Phoenix, and it proved to be the perfect match.

“It’s a family, it’s a real family. Big, big, big family,” he said, “Since I’ve been here, everyone has done so much for me, to be able to feel a part of this family. We work together, play wheelchair basketball together, sometimes cry together because it’s too overwhelming. There’s a lot of emotion.”

According to its website, Ability360 “advocates personal responsibility – by, and for, people with disabilities – as a means to independence.” The largest center for independent living in the state of Arizona, Ability360 works to promote self-sufficiency; something Favory hopes to bring to his country.

The sports and fitness center is where Favory spends a large part of each day. The state-of-the-art facility includes multiple basketball courts, several pools and a large gym, all accessible for people with disabilities. For a skilled wheelchair basketball player like Favory, practicing at this facility is a dream come true.

Gus LaZear, vice president and general manager of the Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center, said Ability 360 is about much more than athletics.

“Ability360 is bigger than a sports and fitness center. We’re a center for independent living,” he said. “Our focus is on independent living skills, community integration, advocacy for people with disabilities and back-to-work programs.”

While at Ability360, Favory’s focus is on community integration, independent living and advocacy for people with disabilities. He is working with three of the corporation’s vice presidents to gain as much knowledge as possible. Favory recently accompanied LaZear to his other profession.

“I teach at ASU, an inclusive recreation class, and he actually presented to the students last week in regards to what inclusive recreation is in Mauritius and the differences he’s seen internationally,” LaZear said.

These differences are what Favory hopes to eliminate using his observations and experiences from his stay in the United States. Even in a nation that can be politically and socially divided as this one, people often unite through their love of sports. Favory hopes to mimic this trend in his country using wheelchair basketball, and his plan is already in the works.

Mauritius will host the 2019 Indian Ocean Island Games, and Favory plans to petition for the addition of wheelchair basketball.

“We will be able to show everyone that, hey, we are here and we play wheelchair basketball, and we can do a lot of things in a wheelchair,” Favory said.

Even without the proper training and a lack of transportation to practice facilities, Favory predicts Mauritius wheelchair basketball will be ranked in the top two in all of the Indian Ocean. He’s optimistic because of the support he has received from the people at Ability360.

“I know that the people here would love to help us to be able to achieve things. I’ve seen the desire of people here to be able to help us,” Favory said.

This plan is just a stepping stone in what he hopes to achieve.

“Independence,” Favory said. “To be able to decide what they want to do, to be able to get a proper education and to be able to move freely.

On September 15, Favory will return to his home country and continue to advocate for change.