On December 20, 1974, I graduated from the University of New
Orleans with my B.S. degree in Geology. It was a particularly joyful
day in my life. I had conquered the first self-recognized hurdle on my
path to my perception of independence and now felt mighty good about
myself and my ability to cope. We had a party at my home and many of
the friends I had made during the past few years CAME. Everyone seemed
to have a good time and I, well, I was in ecstasy. No one, however,
asked what I would be doing next. No doubt everyone knew I did not have
a job lined up at that time. They also knew I was going to the
University of Illinois the following August - maybe.
For about a year prior to that date, I had been searching for another
university at which I could continue my education. I had decided it
would be best to attend a different university for graduate work in
order to be exposed to a broader range of ideas and opinions. I used
the quality of geology programs and the quality of rehabilitation
programs as my primary selection criteria. The field of selection had
been narrowed to the University of Missouri at Columbia and the
University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. My parents and I went to
visit both schools during October, 1974.
We visited the University of Missouri first. The faculty and facilities
of the Department of Geology impressed me greatly. Apparently I made a
good impression also because I was assured that I could begin in
January, 1975. In the afternoon, I was interviewed by people working
with the rehabilitation program. As they explained the program to me
and showed me around the living quaters, it became clear that things
would be similar to my experiences at the University of New Orleans. I
would again have someone to help me with my physical needs, such as
bathing and dressing. It would be very comfortable for me, not much of
a transition. They even mentioned teaching me to operate an electric
wheelchair so I could better negotiate the hilly campus. The people
with vocational rehabilitation there also said that I would be
recommended for admittance in January, after I had obtained my B.S. in
December. At this point, it merely seemed to be a question of whether I
liked the University of Illinois' Department of Geology better.
The next morning found me at the U. of I. Geology Department and, once
again, I was informed by members of the faculty that I would be
recommended for acceptance in January. The people and facilities there
impressed me to the same degree as did those at Missouri; therefore I
felt I would have to go home and really study the imformation I had
gathered before I could make a proper decision. No gut feeling was
available to make the decision easier.
That afternoon my attitude and, subsequently, my life completely
changed. I went to the Vocational Rehabilitation-Education Center for
an interview. After giving me a tour of the modern center, I was placed
in the hands of one Professor Chuck Elmer, the physical therapist of
the center. He conducted my physical evaluation like a drill seargent.
A physical evaluation had not been performed at Missouri, so I
immediately realized that these people were more particular about the
students they would recommend for acceptance to the university. The
first thing I was told to do was get out of my wheelchair and onto a
floor mat. This was one task I had learned on my own. The next chore
was to get back into my wheelchair. Easy. Dr. Elmer only suggested I
lock my wheelchair next time, which I hadn't taken time to do. Then I
was told to transfer into a straight chair from my wheelchair, and then
back into my wheelchair. Again, I had done this before and so had no
trouble. "Come into my office," he said. "What a cakewalk!" I thought.
"He's probably so impressed by what I can do he's going to just call
the rest of this thing off."
Inside his office:
"Can you dress yourself?"
"I can put my pants on, but I can't zip them up or fasten them."
"Is that all?"
"Uh. I can get a T-shirt on by myself, too."
"Can you get the shirt off?"
"If it buttons I can usually unbutton it and wiggle it off my
"But you can't button a shirt?"
"Anything else you can do to dress or undress yourself?"
"Just that I can get my pants off if they're unfastened and unzipped."
"Can you go to the bathroom by yourself?"
What a question, I thought, and began to feel uneasy. "Well, I need
someone to help me onto the toilet. Then I need someone to wipe me and
help me back into my wheelchair."
"If you can transfer to a chair, why can't you transfer to a toilet?"
"Well, now that I think about it, I guess maybe I can. It's just not
set up the same way."
"Why can't you clean yourself?"
It should be obvious to any good physical therapist that I do not have
the ability, I thought. Then I tried to answer the question with
self-assurance. "Well...actually, I've never really tried, but I'm sure
I would touch the water with my hand." That nasty water, I thought
"If you've already flushed the toilet, that water is as clean as water
in a sink." He appeared to have read my mind.
The interview went on like that, seeming to slide faster and faster
downhill. Until the line about flushing the toilet, I had begun to
think maybe this man was a little touched. Certainly, he didn't know
his job. He was expecting far too much of me. I knew, because many
people had told me they were surprised I could do so much for myself
with the kind of disability I had. Indeed, I was beginning to not think
so highly of the rehabilitation program at the University of Illinois.
If they expected people to already be able to do such things, were they
really rehabilitating anyone here? Surely they would not want to cope
Even as these thoughts were jumbling and tumbling in my mind, that line
about clean water began to change my thinking on the matter of
performing everyday tasks. Why should I worry about getting my hand wet
with fresh toilet water? Because I didn't think others did it? That was
absurd! I could learn to wash my hand, or hands, after going to the
bathroom even if I did touch the fresh toilet water. Also, transferring
onto and off of a toilet should be no more difficult than if the toilet
were a straight chair. Suddenly, my thinking seemed to have hit a brick
wall and exploded, sending questions into a hundred different
directions at once.
I was assaulted by conflicting feelings. I saw at last that I did not
have to do things like other people. I could use adaptation to find my
own way of doing some necessary or desired task. It did not have to
look like the way anyone else did it! What a revelation! What a shock
to realize part of my thinking had been wrong for years.
At the same time I was scared to death. I was scared because I could
envision myself trying and failing to accomplish things that still
seemed improbable, if not impossible.
Later in the interview, Dr. Elmer emphasized the need to a) think
carefully about each particular problem, b) formulate one or more
possible solutions (preferably more than one), c) choose the solution
which appears to be best, and d) put that into practice. If the
solution worked, one should use it again and again until it became
natural. If it did not work, one should choose the next best solution
or try to formulate new solutions. In my opinion, these simple rules,
and the thinking behind them, cannot be emphasized enough.
It is also very important for the individual to always think about
possibilities for improvement. Even if a particular solution or method
has worked well for years, it can invariably be improved or discarded
in favor of something better. In this manner techniques can continually
be refined, saving time and energy. Refining solutions is important
because in many of the world's societies efficiency is at a premium,
especially where everyday tasks are concerned.
Having completed the interview, Dr. Elmer took me to see the assistant
director, Dr. Konitzki. On my way, I passed my parents who were sitting
in the lobby and my mother later told me that my face was almost ashen.
It should have been. Three things weighed heavily on my mind at that
First, I had been knocked from my pedestal. Instead of being an
overachiever as far as physical independence was concerned, it had
become dreadfully apparent that I was far from reaching my full
potential. One reason for this ego crushing realization was that a part
of my thinking seemed so idiotic in light of ideas and concepts just
beginning to implant themselves. For example, because physical and
occupational therapy had ceased providing any observable progress long
ago, I had assumed I could stop thinking very hard about ways I could
get things done. In other words, if therapy had ceased helping me
improve, I felt there certainly was nothing I could I do on my own. I
had always believed there was no use worrying about something I
couldn't do anything about. Consequently, the realization that maybe I
could have been doing something like dressing myself for years
overwhelmed me! On a scale that had a dumb monkey at one end and an
intelligent man at the other, I felt very closely akin to the monkey.
Second, the people of this rehabilitation center did not seem too
impressed with me. Meeting other staff previous to Chuck Elmer
reinforced this perception. This was very disconcerting because I was
used to strangers being thrilled and amazed at the brave disabled
person who had overcome so many obstacles. To these people I was an
average, fairly pleasant young man who had a lot to learn.
Lastly, I was already feeling I would not be admitted into the program.
This constituted a huge failure in my eyes. At that point I felt like
hell. OF COURSE, MY FACE WAS ASHEN!!!
While I was talking with Dr. Konitzki, he threw out another "point to
ponder". He made me realize that even if I obtained a well paying job
after graduation, I would likely have to pay someone at least half my
salary to help me with the things I could not do for myself. Thus, a
well paying job would become a work-all-the-time-but-barely-get-by job.
I was not expecting to be paid so much that I would be free of
financial worry. (My ego is big, but not that big.) I did envision
doing a lot with my paycheck, however. Having that paycheck suddenly
sliced in half painted an entirely different scenario. Yes, I had
expected to pay someone to help take care of me later on, a few
dollars. I had never seriously thought about how much I would have to
pay. At that point I realized that a fair wage would be more than a few
dollars. Simple lesson: the more I could do for myself, the less I
would have to shell out for a caretaker.
Before my parents were called in to join the discussion, Dr. Elmer came
in and handed Dr. Konitzki a piece of yellow paper, then left. As soon
as he had finished reading it I asked if I would be accepted. I knew
that was what the paper was all about. I also felt I knew the answer.
"No, we cannot recommend your acceptance to this university in January
because we feel you can do more for yourself than you are doing at
present. We think you are capable of becoming more independent by
learning to do more for yourself. Alao, we do not feel you can be
expected to carry a full load in graduate school and learn to take care
of yourself at the same time. Therefore, we suggest that you stay home
after graduation from the University of New Orleans until next August.
Use that eight months or so to concentrate on teaching yourself
"Of course, you do not have to listen to our advice, and we know you
would probably like to complete your education and go on to other
things as soon as possible. But we feel that a few months' time taken
to learn these things now will save you years of frustration in the
future. You will not be as dependent on others as you are now."
I could feel a flush of anger and resentment rising within me. I tried
not to let it show. What did they know about how much more I could do
for myself? Of course I wanted to get on with things. I had been in
college nearly five years and, because I got a late start, I was almost
26 years old. As far as being independent was concerned, if I prepared
myself for a decent job wouldn't I be lessening my dependence on
"If I do follow your advice and stay home for 8 months, will you
somehow teach me to do these things?"
"We will give you a few suggestions but most of it will be on your own.
("Damn," I thought, "they don't even want to help me!")
"Every individual is different," he went on, "and he or she must find
the best way for him or her to accomplish a particular task. Basically,
all an individual has to do is think about the problem at hand. We can
offer suggestions based on what others have done to solve problems you
face, but no one knows your capabilities as well as you.
"We'll ask that you send us a monthly progress report along with any
questions you may have. If your reports indicate sufficient progress we
will invite you to Functional Training Week. This is the week before
the rest of the students arrive on campus. During this week you will be
evaluated as to how well you can live on your own. All of our disabled
students are expected to manage on their own. Although most have
roommates, the roommates are not attendants and do not want to be tied
down. Very few people are willing to sacrifice a lot of time in order
to help someone else, especially when they're under pressure. During
Functional Training Week we will not merely observe; we will help you
learn things, such as the best way to take a shower. If, during the
course of the week, you demonstrate that you are capable of taking care
of yourself, you will be cleared for acceptance by the university."
That was basically it. The pep talk, such as it was, was over. Dr.
Konitzki, however, had one more reinforcement for his argument. Before
he let my parents and me leave (at 5:30 or 6:00), he got in touch with
a student by the name of Andy Livesey because Andy's disability was
much like mine. My parents and I were sent to Andy's dormitory to talk
with him. Andy answered our questions and showed us around his room and
the bathroom. Although it was obvious that he could use his hands
better then I could, I was duly impressed at how much he had learned to
do for himself.
The decision facing me now went from minor to major, from simple to
complex. I had expected to base my decision primarily on the
differences in the geology departments at the University of Missouri
and the University of Illinois. The process of evaluating those
departments involved many factors, but that process paled in comparison
to the task now before me. Indeed, my present level of physical ability
ruled out attending the University of Illinois. If I wanted to still be
able to make a choice as to which university to attend, I now had to
resolve to become as physically independent as possible. Was it worth
We went back to the motel room that night and, after my mother
unfastened my trousers, I went into the bathroom. (The bathroom door
happened to be wide enough for my wheelchair.) I pulled my pants down,
successfully transferred onto the toilet, urinated, and transferred
back into my wheelchair. It was a small accomplishment but an important
At that point the decision had been implicitly made. Though I did not
commit myself at that time, I knew deep down which road I would have to
follow. The gut feeling so often needed in decision making was now
there. The decision became a relatively easy one. Later, I was able to
articulate my reasons for choosing what seemed to be the harder road to
follow at the time. First, I would certainly learn more about taking
care of myself if I spent 8 months facing various problems and trying
to solve them. That alone was enough to make the prospect worthwhile.
Even if I could not learn enough to enter the University of Illinois in
August, I felt the things I might learn would be useful to me the rest
of my life. Second, if I "washed out" during Functional Training Week,
I could probably go straight to the University of Missouri or even back
to the University of New Orleans. Having alternative courses of action,
I felt less afraid of the unknown. Third, I felt the challenge and
wanted to meet it. For a long time I had prided myself on accepting
reasonable challenges - a reasonable challenge being defined by me as
one with a low risk of harm to myself and to others. This challenge
seemed imminently reasonable.
Soon after my graduation from the University of New Orleans in
December, 1974, I began working on self care. The first thing I
resolved to learn was to eat pieces of food from a table so my
stepfather could go to work without feeding me every morning. The next
thing I learned was how to get dressed, socks and all. Then came
undressing, bathing, shaving, toileting, and many other tasks I had
once dismissed as impossibilities. I continued to work diligently for
the next 8 months, being accepted at the University of Illinois in
August, 1975. Of course, I first had to endure the rigors of "Hell
Week" as previous students had so aptly dubbed Functional Training
I hope the story just related clearly illustrates the principles this
book attempts to convey. In case they did not stand out, however, here
again are three principles I find very important.
First, a change in attitude is necessary in many cases. The degree of
change that is required depends on the attitudes already held. With me,
the degree took the form of an about face in 1974. At 26 years old I
found that part of my thinking needed to be redirected to a completely
different path from the one which it had been blithely stumbling along
for years. The change may not need to be that drastic at all for
others. Whatever the degree of change, however, it must be enough to
make one realize that MORE CAN BE DONE! Without this knowledge, this
feeling, one will never begin to reach their full potential; will never
become as independent as they can be; and, finally, will never become
as happy and content as they could be. That is a far-reaching
statement, but my experience has shown it to be extremely accurate.
Second, the narrative illustrates the need to think of alternative
solutions to a problem when the "standard" method either cannot be
employed or takes too long due to a physical disability. Individuals
should not worry if alternate methods seem odd or do not "look good" to
other people, as long as they are not grossly offensive to others. The
basic rule here is: If a method is functional, use it.
Third, the need to practice a workable method was impressed on me by
being told to basically do nothing except work on self care skills for
8 months. Remember, once a method is found that works, it needs to be
practiced, and then practiced some more, until it becomes
second-nature. Non-disabled folks have been performing certain tasks
since they were very young and so have had lots of time in which to
learn, practice, and refine their methods of doing things. Therefore,
disabled individuals must practice often (not merely apply the methods
when the tasks need to be done) in order to refine whatever methods are
chosen. When a method becomes second-nature one can apply it without
having to think about it, thus leaving the mind free to think about
other subjects. Sometimes one may even want to think about how to
improve the particular method. It is good to go through this process of
reevaluation once in a while even after the method has become
These three principles need to be embedded in the mind, especially the
first one: MORE CAN BE DONE! They can change a life drastically. They
have turned mine around.