What was once unusual is now commonplace

My twentieth anniversary of being quadriplegic came last week and I never realized I passed it by until it was in the rear-view mirror. On the afternoon of December 3rd, 1987, I was a fit, talented athlete cross-training for the ski season with some cycling. Before the end of the ride, my body was paralyzed below the shoulders. I haven’t walked since then and my power wheelchair is the only wheeled vehicle I ride anymore.

What was once totally foreign to me has now become commonplace. Even a year or two after sustaining a complete spinal cord injury, I would still frequently wonder why such a catastrophic injury would happen to me as I would observe in wonder at the surreal circumstances I was in. In the blink of an eye, I went from a life focused on sports and other physical activities to one devoid of athletic endeavors and reliant on intellectual or professional pursuits for achievement. I had to instantaneously change my lifestyle 180 degrees to find fulfillment.

After twenty years, this lifestyle must not be so novel to me anymore. Otherwise, how could this milestone anniversary have come and gone without me taking notice? Where being quadriplegic once was something that happens to other people, I now am that other person. I’ve become so accustomed to dealing with quadriplegia that it is no longer something I must dwell on just to get through my activities of daily living.

That’s not to say life is without struggle for me. On the contrary—I face countless challenges daily just trying to do those everyday things that able-bodied people take for granted (I know this because I, too, used to take them for granted). The difference is that I now face those struggles trying to realize self-actualization whereas the struggles were then just trying to achieve the physiological and safety needs from Maslow’s hierarchy. I guess I’ve discovered that dwelling on what I cannot do only gets in the way of achieving that which I can.

In the early years of my disability, I never would have risen above the barriers I faced to become a productive member of society without the strength, support, and love of my mother. To this day, she is still my foundation and has never failed to give of anything she can to continue supporting me. The rest of my tight-knit family has given me whatever other support I have needed to fully engage in an active and fulfilling life.

The first decade of disability was dedicated to rebuilding and learning to adapt. As a high school dropout, I didn’t expect to accomplish much professionally without a degree being a quadriplegic. It took me quite a few years to get an undergraduate degree and then an MBA. In the meantime, I had to learn how to have fun without participating in some sport. It turns out that the wheelchair seating is pretty good in some venues, so concerts continued to be a frequent leisure activity for me. I could watch sports just as well paralyzed as able-bodied. Watching movies was yet another way to pass the time.

The last decade of disability has been dedicated to rejoining the workforce and developing a career. Even with the growing awareness of people with disabilities in society, this is unquestionably the greatest challenge to conquer for someone with a severe disability. Although it’s likely subconscious, there is still a surprising amount of discrimination against people with disabilities in employment. Fortunately, I have been able to encounter a handful of progressive organizations that have overlooked my physical limitations and hired me for my capabilities. I have enjoyed working in a variety of different jobs this decade that were suited to my skills and knowledge such that I have been relatively successful at making valuable contributions to my employer. Hopefully the workforce’s exposure to me has increased the odds of the next young man with a severe disability coming along looking for a job to get it.

Now I’m managing a very successful business unit for an organization. I have led it to rapid growth and through substantial development. Of course, that means I’ve been very busy so, when the twentieth anniversary of my disability came along last week, I was too busy to remember it. I suppose that’s a good thing—had I not realized the accomplishments I’ve had in spite of being quadriplegic, I’d probably be sitting around home every weekday watching TV and the milestone would instead have loomed up on me like a big cloud.

Granted, I still occasionally think that quadriplegia has made my life rather dismal in many ways. At times like that, all I have to do is think about what life would be like living in a place like Darfur or even just a hundred miles away like the slums of Tijuana to realize that I’m really quite blessed. So here I go, looking forward to the next two decades with anticipation and determination to make them better than the last two.

Check back here at the end of 2027. If I write nothing whatsoever about the fortieth anniversary of my quadriplegia, it will mean either I’ve become fully self-actualized or someone discovers the cure to spinal cord injuries.

Universal Design

Universal Design refers to incorporating features into a home which make it more accessible to persons with disabilities while retaining its utility and aesthetic for able-bodied residents. Unfortunately, even though the concept is that Universal Design should be equally as homey for able-bodied residents as a dwelling with no Universal Design is, it’s still rare to find housing with such features. So when a major apartment management company incorporated Universal Design into one of their units expressly for me without charging me for it, I thought the company deserves commendation for it.

The most important Universal Design feature for me is the curbless shower. It makes an act that most people take for granted, bathing, so much easier for me when I can simply roll my wheelchair right into the shower stall. The challenge is to design a curbless shower which does not appear institutional and in which a bather is just as comfortable using it standing up. Fortunately, manufacturers are now meeting that challenge.

Curbless shower
Curbless shower

The management also removed the cabinetry from under the sinks in both the master bathroom and the kitchen so that I could get my knees under either of the sinks while seated in front of them in a wheelchair. Granted, an able-bodied resident would likely prefer cabinetry under the sink, with doors to obscure the underside of the sink. However, what makes this qualify as Universal Design is the fact that the cabinetry can easily be restored under the sink if all disabled residents were to later vacate the dwelling.

Another feature they incorporated into the kitchen is a roll-out pantry. Each shelf has rollers that allow them to be pulled out in front of where the closed doors would be. This makes the items in the pantry much easier to reach for someone seated in front of it. Regardless, able-bodied residents also find this Universal Design feature preferable to standard shelving.

There are some other Universal Design features which were not added specifically for me. They were actually added to all of the apartment units when they renovated the property where I live because they are widely desired as contemporary interior design. These are the levered door handles, the touch pad light switches, and the hardwood flooring. While the handles and switches are very helpful features for people with limited manual dexterity, they are nonetheless preferred by all tenants. The hardwood flooring is much easier to roll a wheelchair on than a carpeted floor, but the management added it to all of the units when they did the renovation because their market was demanding it.

In front of each of the doors, management built up a small concrete pad that gently slopes right up to the threshold. Blending in with the walkway leading up to the front door (or the patio out back), this inconspicuous modification makes the apartment easily accessible to smoothly rolling a wheelchair into without having to install a wood or aluminum ramp. However, this feature is also beneficial to people walking into the residence because there’s no chance of accidentally tripping over the sill of the doorway. It also makes it easier to dolly items like a refrigerator into the home.

Finally, the last accommodation that management made for me is the carpeting. In the rooms without hardwood flooring, the apartment had the carpeting typically found in rental units—light colored with a nap. This kind of carpeting is rapidly trashed by wheelchairs. First of all, the tires track dirt in much more so than shoes do, leaving stains that are very conspicuous on light colored carpeting. Secondly, they also rapidly matte down the nap in the most frequently trafficked areas, leaving wheel tracks in the carpeting. So management laid commercial carpeting like they use in the leasing office in my apartment. Its short nap doesn’t get matted and the dark, mottled coloring camouflages the dirt tracked in by the wheels. This accommodation might not qualify as Universal Design since able-bodied tenants would probably prefer the standard carpeting.

Nonetheless, it speaks to the socially responsible manner in which my apartment management company does business. While accommodating the special needs of a small cohort, they’re also using innovative Universal Design that benefits the entire population they serve. I give a tip of the hat to them.

Gimme a break!

As a hard-working, middle-class, single renter with no children, I have not qualified for the bulk of the tax breaks that Bush has carved out for the rich these past few years. My tax burden is pretty much the same now as it was when Clinton was in office—actually, it’s probably higher because my income has gone up a bit since then. Those of you who have enjoyed the good fortune of tax cuts courtesy of president Bush, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they have in any way been distributed evenly among American taxpayers.

Now the Democrats are proposing some tax breaks. Again: I’m spurned! Senator Wyden and representative Blumenauer, both Democrats from Oregon, are introducing bills in their respective houses of congress which would give commuters who ride bikes to work between $40 and $100 per month in tax breaks.

I’ll be the first to say that it’s a good idea to ride a bike to work—especially in these days of skyrocketing gas prices. In fact, I used to ride my bike 150 to 200 miles a week just to stay fit. That’s less than the miles I commute every week for work. I love riding a bike!

However, now that I’m quadriplegic, it’s simply not feasible for me to ride a bike to work. Even if it were possible to fix a wheelchair lift to a tandem bicycle, I’m certain the federal government would not provide me with someone to pedal it for me. Of course, that last statement was silly but there’s a serious point behind it. The federal government must, by law, make all programs and services they provide equally accessible to citizens with disabilities. That includes tax breaks.

So here we are in times of record deficits and out-of-control government spending with the government trying to give Americans yet another tax break. Unfortunately, I would not get to participate in this one either. As long as the government is handing them out, I wish at least once they’d give me a tax break!