Jul 26, 2015

Wheelchairs and Stroke Survivors, aka Talk to Me When You're Talking to Me

China had the first-recorded wheelchair in the 6th century, made of plant reeds and iron wheels, and then Spain, Germany, and England later, ably transported, mostly through wars, the disabled by other wheelchair materials. Many centuries later in the 1700s, in Bath, England, the most popular wheelchair, albeit cumbersome, looked like this: 

Now we have this


Look how far we've come. But I'm here to talk about wheelchairs in a different capacity.


There are two Mark Zupan's. There is Mark Zupan, the famous dean of the University of Rochester's Simon School of Business, but I'm talking about the other Mark Zupan, who earned a soccer scholarship to Florida Atlantic University


Mark Zupan

A football and soccer star in high school, and after a soccer game in '93, when he was 18 years young, Zupan got buzzed at a bar along with some of his soccer team and fell asleep in the back of his friend's truck. His friend, driving drunk, went off the road and Zupan landed in the canal, clinging to a branch for almost 15 hours, resulting in hypothermia and, ultimately, to quadriplegia.  


Even though he stands and walks short distances, Zupan ended up in a wheelchair for life and became a quad rugby champion twice. Zupan went on to become a TV and movie personality, appearing many times as "the guy in the wheelchair."  


Zupan's autobiography, "GIMP: When Life Deals You a Crappy Hand, You Can Fold---or You Can Play" and his notable championships make him famous.

But to me, he is most famous for his words: "We're normal people," says Zupan. "Don't be scared because we are in a chair. People don't understand that. They think, 'Oh, a wheelchair, something's wrong with their heads, something's just not right.' Well yeah, we may be a little twisted, but no more than anyone else." And there it is: "no more than anyone else." 

Maybe it's only me, feeling diminished by the wheelchair. I can stand and walk with a quad cane so sometimes, when I'm in the wheelchair, I raise the leg rests and stand so I'm on the same plain as everybody else. I'll explain.

When I go to a doctor or a store and I have a lot of walking to do, I'll go in the wheelchair, of course with a friend because I can't drive (seizures in the first year, and this is my 6th, but still...). The doctor or the salesperson always addresses my friend, like, as Zupan says, they think "something's wrong" with my head.

I was almost to the point, many times, of telling them "to look the fuck at me." But I didn't. Except one time. I was, to use on old expression, at my wit's end.

Kristin C, working with the elderly, says in an email, when looking at somebody in a wheelchair: "I think we can only learn this from exposure to [the wheelchair]. If we all realize that it is the person in the wheelchair who counts, and not the wheelchair, and actually look at the person, we will get better at it from practicing it."

But how many people do that? 10 percent? Less? Fuck. Not many at all.

Now I have a new line, much more genteel, to redirect attention back to me: "Talk to me when you're talking to me." You can use it for the doctor or salesperson. If asked, say you just thought of it. Don't say you read it somewhere. Don't give me credit. Just use it. And it works every time.