The Wheelchair Highwaymen combine art and tech to spread ADA awareness in “New Landscapes”

Zach Fawcett, Staff Writer
Published 11:21 a.m. ET Oct. 11, 2020


This photograph called “Bellamy Row” by the Wheelchair Highwaymen was taken in 2019 and can be viewed in the “New Landscapes” online exhibit. (Photo: Courtesy of FSU Museum of Fine Arts)

On Oct. 8, Florida State University’s Museum of Fine Arts hosted a virtual artist talk with the Wheelchair Highwaymen to promote their online exhibition “New Landscapes.”

Max Lee, J.R. Harding and Gordon Palmer, physically limited to wheelchairs, use modern drone technology to practice photography. Both Harding and Palmer are quadriplegic. Max Lee, an engineer, professional photographer and paraplegic has adapted his love of photography from youth to the use of drone photography. They have worked to capture the beauty of Florida landscapes and incorporate Floridian history in every single picture they take. Their name, Wheelchair Highwaymen, came to by paying homage to African Americans still living in servitude, who made their living by selling art out of the back of cars because modern galleries would not accept their works. The African American artists who independently sold their works were known as “Florida Highwaymen.” The Wheelchair Highwaymen chose to carry on the ‘Highwaymen’ name because instead of suffering from civil rights, Harding, Lee and Palmer are fighting for the advancement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

J.R Harding is currently a full-time faculty member at Florida State University in the College of Business. He is the author of “Now What?” and “ADA Adventure.” Harding’s area of expertise lies in disability subject matter (employment, access and transportation). Harding has been passionate about this issue his entire life. 

“I remember being in a wheelchair at a young age where a boy reached for a toy I was playing with and his mother snatched him away telling him ‘No! You’re going to catch what he has!”’ Harding said. 

Harding has contributed to national, state and community public policy, advancing independence and self-sufficiency of persons with disabilities for 30 years. 

“There is no law that requires infrastructure designers or building inspectors to implement access for the disabled,” Lee explained. 

Many people with physical disabilities struggle everyday around homes and buildings that lack the resources to accommodate them. Despite their lack of complete mobile freedom, this has not stopped the Wheelchair Highwaymen from getting outside, exploring nature and capturing breathtaking photographs.

“It’s a lot like life, it’s uncomfortable and wet in the morning but by the end, it’s absolutely beautiful,” said Harding, speaking on their sunrise image “Williston Streaming.”

“Williston Streaming” by the Wheelchair Highwaymen features a sunrise and was photographed in 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of the FSU Museum of Fine Arts)

The Wheelchair Highwaymen use high-flying, long-range drones to hone their craft. The trio has experimented with multiple drones to determine the best equipment to suit their needs. Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) goggles allow the user to operate a drone by simply turning your head. The point of view (camera) of the drone will move accordingly to your movements. You can take snapshots with the goggles by swiping the side of the goggles with your hand. 

While talking about the drones, the group shared their thoughts on the drones’ performance. “That level of independence has been incredibly liberating for us to do what we do,” said Harding.

The trio has accumulated a wide collection of their work. Their complete gallery can be found online at Lee, Harding and Palmer have worked incredibly hard to bring forth their art to the public.

“The brotherhood and activity together is a priceless experience to me,” Harding said, thanking his friends and colleagues, Lee and Palmer.  

Working with untouched nature while being confined to a wheelchair is no small feat. The appreciation and culmination of history, community and art reveals the depth of their passion, and even further, their work with the ADA will leave behind a world that is much more accommodating and understanding to those with disabilities.

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