My story starts on October 17, 1981. I was 17–years–old and was riding home from a night with friends at the Roundup Rodeo in Simonton, Texas. The girl who was driving was a friend of a friend, so unfortunately I did [End Page E5] not know her well enough to realize that she was drunk. I have very little recollection of the accident, nor of the few days that followed. However, I do recall being very aware that I was paralyzed.
For some reason, I had for the previous few years been reading books by women who had spinal cord injuries as a result of some type of accident. I read Joni Eareckson’s book “Joni” and “The Other Side of the Mountain” about Jill Kinmont, and saw the movies about both women. Additionally, my mother bought me “Karen,” and “With Love, from Karen” the story of Karen Killalea, who has cerebral palsy. It seemed to me that reading these books prepared me for dealing with my disability in a positive way rather than “woe is me.”
I’m actually one of the luckiest people you’ll ever know! While I have a C–4/C–5 SCI, it is pretty incomplete and as a result I’m pretty mobile. I wear an ankle–foot orthotic (AFO) on my right foot and use a cane. I do have Brown–Séquard syndrome, with better sensation on my right side and better function on the left. So, I was right–handed the first 17 years of my life and I’m now a leftie.
A couple of days after my accident, while I was still in the intensive care unit (ICU), one of the nurses felt that it was important for me to realize that I would probably be paralyzed for the rest of my life; never to walk again. So she took it upon herself to deliver this message personally. Well, I wasn’t having any of that! I yelled and screamed and threw the biggest tantrum that one can throw while one’s head is clamped down by Gardner–Wells tongs. Given how well I have recovered, I have often thought how it would be to find Judy, walk up to her, and ask if she remembers me.
My dad has often told me that he thinks I went through the grieving process pretty quickly after my accident. It wasn’t always easy, and I did have my down moments, but for the most part I think he’s right. I’ve always been a positive person and that helped get me through this and many other trying times in my life. I think at the time I also had a fear that no one would want to be around me if I was stuck in a wheelchair and was a Debbie Downer. I was only 17 after all.
When I went away to college I was still mainly using a wheelchair. When I told a friend that I didn’t want to be in a dorm with all of the disabled students, she laughed and asked me why I didn’t want to be with “my people.” Aside from playing some wheelchair basketball, I had never really hung out with other people with disabilities. I was briefly involved with a disabled support type of group but many of them had really negative attitudes. I didn’t stick around for very long after I learned that one of the guys said to one of the women that she would be really attractive if it weren’t for “that wheelchair.” This coming someone in a wheelchair himself!
During my second year at Michigan State I had my first realization that people don’t just see me as someone with a disability. A friend was talking with an acquaintance from the other side of our dorm and she mentioned me. The acquaintance said “oh, Dawn in the wheelchair?” and her response was “yeah, I guess she is in a wheelchair.” When she relayed this conversation to me later I was really moved that she didn’t see me as someone in a wheelchair first.