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.