Friday, October 26, 2012

“Free At Last”

One of the most important things about living with a disability is to squeeze every ounce last of independence out of life that you can.  For me, that meant facing my fears and learning to drive again.

As a paraplegic, I cannot use my legs.  It’s already a big deal to transfer from my wheelchair to a truck.  The thought of driving that same truck once I was inside was more than a little frightening.  I knew, however, that I didn’t want people to be driving me around for the rest of my life, so I had to face my fears.  And like so many other things in life, it was really much easier than I had imagined.

In 2006, I got up the nerve to attend a one-day driving seminar at Mississippi Status University, which is the organization in the state that licenses people with my type of disability.   The lecture part of the seminar was easy and then we moved to the simulators.  Everything I once did with my feet, I now had to do with my hands.  The brakes and gas pedal were now levers on the steering column.  I had to learn to control the simulated vehicle by hand touch, and to indulge in a pun, it was very touch and go in the beginning.  Sometimes I went too fast or braked too slowly, and sometimes I hit the gas instead of the brakes.  It was easy enough all in all, but it took some getting used to. 

After the simulator training, we then went out for a drive, and I was astonished when the instructor turned the keys over to me.  “Dwight, you haven’t forgotten how to drive.  You just have to make a few small adjustments and use your hands now.  Easy as pie.”

“Easy as pie?  This guy must be kidding,” I thought.  So I took the wheel and drove with the caution of an 80 year-old grandmother.  Fifteen miles below the speed limit and timid at every turn.  But I got the feel of things and began to get some confidence.  By the end of the day, I thought I was good to go, and they issued me a new license.  When I got home, we had my old truck adapted for the new me, and I waited on pins and needles for the call saying it was ready for pick up.  That call came a few days later, and after we drove the truck home the following day, I decided to fly solo.

The feeling was exhilarating.  I turned the key and felt a rush go through my body.  This was freedom.  At last I could get out and do things on my own – go where I wanted when I wanted.  I didn’t realize until then just how much it meant to me.  I got in the truck, waved goodbye to Tamika and my mom and set out driving.   Just driving.  It didn’t matter.  I had no agenda, just a feeling of new-found freedom and a smile I couldn’t take off my face.  I drove and drove for hours and even went on a major highway.  I didn’t return until evening only to be greeted by two very unhappy women.  “Dwight, you were gone almost all day and never called.  That’s not right,” said Tamika.  “You could have been in a ditch or had anything happen to you.  We were worried sick,’ added my mom.  And back and forth it went for a long time.   When one of them lost steam, the other joined the fray like a tag team match.  But I didn’t care.

I apologized because if I had been inconsiderate.   But then I explained how this was such a hug turning point in my life and how much it meant to me.  I promised not to repeat my sins, gave them a hug, and got their forgiveness.  Today, I’m the one driving people places.  You need to go the doctor’s – I’m your man.  You need to go food shopping – gimme a call.  In addition, I travel to several schools, organizations, correctional facilities, religious centers, etc. giving Empowerment speeches. I’ve been tearing up the highway for years now. What I know is that I may have a disability, but I can go anywhere, any time.  And I love the freedom.

Dwight Owens

Friday, October 19, 2012

“Some Insight About Dwight”

Many people have asked me: “Jon, why did you write this story?”  The answer is simple.  It’s not what Dwight went through.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  It’s not that Dwight overcame extreme adversity and continues to do so every day.  That’s a great story, but it’s not enough.  What made Dwight’s story compelling was his decision to make it all count for something.  It wasn’t easy for Dwight to put himself out there, to be the center of attention, and offer himself as an example of what people with disabilities can do.  It took him a couple of years to internalize that decision, to turn his tragic accident into an opportunity, and to become a public figure.  Once he did, there was no looking back.

For the first year after his accident, Dwight’s life was centered on survival – both physical and emotional.  His constant regiment of surgery and rehab followed by more surgeries, more rehab, more pain, and more setbacks would have crushed a lesser person.  And while I know Dwight had a despondent moment or two along the way, his spirit was indomitable.  He wouldn’t quite, and his family, his church, and his community wouldn’t either.  They locked arms and hearts to make sure Dwight pulled through,, and when he did, Dwight knew something special had happened.  Yes, his life changed on a dime.  Yes, he lived in pain every day.  And, yes, he would be paralyzed forever.  But mostly he knew that all that wasn’t enough to keep a good man down. 

Slowly but surely, Dwight forged a plan.   He started to accept speaking engagements at Middle Schools and High Schools throughout the south.  He began his “Before You Drink, Think Dwight” tour, and it was a hit.  It was a hit because Dwight wasn’t preachy.  Bad things happened to innocent people when you drink and drive, but he wasn’t in the business of scaring people.  He was in the business of teaching responsibility to youngsters and showing them what they could accomplish no matter the odds.  He filled his talks with humor, funny anecdotes, and serious tales of people with disabilities.  Each talk was sprinkled with laughter and tear.  Dwight explained that he forgave the driver that put him in his wheelchair, and he spoke forgiveness as a better path than hatred or vengeance. 

Later on, Dwight started his own support group for men with disabilities and extended his speaking to college campuses, major hospitals, MADD groups, and more.  In fact, he was so tireless that LIFE, an organization associated with AmeriCorps, nominated him for the National Service Award.  He was one of many thousands nominated, and he was one of only three selected for the honor. 

Dwight’s story is just beginning.  He got married after the accident to the love of his life, Tamika, and they are expecting their first child this December.  He drives himself to every speaking engagement, and his rams are like tree stumps from all the weight lifting and manual rolling he does in his chair.  Dwight has found the courage to build a full and rewarding life and to bring his story of humble triumph to the world.   To this write, that’s a story worth telling.

Jonathan Praet

Friday, October 12, 2012

“Young Adventurers”

Last week I wrote a description about my introduction to my wheelchair.   Wheelchairs are amazing things, and I have learned over the past few years that they hold a fascination for youngsters.  Here’s what I mean.

A few years back, I was doing some Christmas shopping for the family.  Minding my own business, I hardly had a care in the world.  I was meandering slowly through the store and  rolling gently around a corner when I was suddenly face to face with a beautiful young girl, perhaps six years old.  Her eyes grew wide when she saw me and she blurted: “Mama, I want one of those for Christmas.”

The girl’s enthusiasm and honesty were infection, and her mom was horrified.  The young girl, of course, thought my wheelchair was a toy, and she wanted one.  It looked like fun to her.  I noticed the pained look on her mom’s face, chuckled, and said:  “Darling, I love your attitude, but I don’t really think this is for you.”  I then smiled at both of them and moved on.  As I say In “Still Standing,” I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the little girl’s mom explained what the wheelchair was really all about.

In a second instance, I was rolling down the aisle of a grocery store one day with my gripper extended trying to reach some cereal.  All of a sudden, I was flying down the aisle faster than the speed limit on a superhighway unable to slow down.   As I glanced behind me, a young adventurer had decided it would be great fun to push this thing with the big wheels.  To him, it looked like his Big Wheel back home.  He was laughing and shouting and having a ball, and I just had to laugh along with him.  We finally came to a stop, and a crowd began to gather, not sure what to do exactly.   I told the youngster: “No harm, no foul,” and then suggested he not do that a second time. 

What I have learned over the years is that wheelchairs can be an irresistible attraction for youngsters.  I love their spirit of adventure, but I am also always on the lookout for that brave young soul who thinks running at full speed pushing a wheelchair would be the best fun ever.  To my fellow wheelchair travelers, I say this: “Beware.  The under ten crowd can cause some excitement you might not really want.”

Dwight Owens

Thursday, October 4, 2012

“My Wheelchair, My Friend”

I can tell you this.  Life in a wheelchair doesn’t start off easy.

In my case, I was prone for over a month undergoing numerous surgeries for my back, my spine, and a few internal organs before I was even placed in a wheelchair for the first time.  When the medical staff finally said: “Dwight, it’s time,” I thought it would be simple.  Little did I know.

Since I had been flat on my back for so long, the simple act of raising myself up to a sitting position was excruciating.  And that was the easy past.  It was also nauseating.  It was like getting on the spinning cups at an amusement park at warp speed, and the pain and dizziness overwhelmed me.  The doctors said: “Dwight, this is normal.  Stay with us, and don’t give up.  It will pass.” 

Well, it did pass over time, and soon I had to start learning a new normal.  Slowly but surely, I got used to my new best friend.  My wheelchair seemed to have a mind of its own, and a bad attitude to boot.  It was not easy to control and I kept going places I didn’t mean for it to go.  I was continually banging into things.  In fact, I put holes in so much sheetrock at the rehab center that they began to tease me.  But it was done lovingly and with a smile because they’d seen it all before.

“Dang, Dwight.  We’re gonna have to hire a drywall crew just to keep up with the holes you keep knocking in the walls,” my physical therapist would joke.  “But don’t worry.  You’re getting the hang of it.”  And I was.  A week later, they were teaching me how to do wheelies, which is important because sometime I have to roll over obstacles or move from a slightly lower place to a higher place.  And the fear of tipping over was always there. 

The staff would lay out a course of small cones that I would have to weave through, lean to the side of my chair, and pick up one-by-one.  They were there to catch me as I began to tip over, but in a week or two, I was racing through the course and moving on the next challenges.

The point of all this is that people in wheelchairs have to learn how to “walk” all over again.  Of course, we’re not walking, but we can cover as much distance as any able-bodies person.  And since I tend not use my motorized chair, the constant pushing on the wheels has made my arms like a couple of pythons.  I think nothing now of rolling two or three miles at a mall in a manual chair or even rolling up the road from my house to visit friends and relatives.  It took a full year to become perfectly comfortable in my chair doing transfers, for example, from my chair to my truck.  (Yes, I drive every day.  I just use my hands instead of my feet.)  And even now, my wheelchair sometimes misbehaves, but I just give it a scolding and tell it to get back in line.  We get along just fine.

Dwight Owens