"Disability in a certain way allows you to reinvent your life," ABC News Correspondent John Hockenberry told an audience on the University of Washington campus in June. Hockenberry was promoting his book, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence (Hyperion), an account of his own adjustment to paraplegia and his subsequent career in broadcast journalism.
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When his lower body was paralyzed in a traffic accident 19 years ago, Hockenberry said, "I had to learn to sit up, I had to learn to roll over, I had to learn to get out of bed." Relearning these basics helped him understand their importance, and offered him a chance to "take authorship" of his own life.
He remembers his rehabilitation as being "like a prep school where instead of academics you have toilet training--and the food is bad." After his rehabilitation, Hockenberry moved to Oregon, where he resumed his college studies and began working at a local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliated station.
The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 focused national attention on the Pacific Northwest, and Hockenberry's radio station became an important source of local information for NPR. The contacts and experience gained during that coverage eventually brought Hockenberry to Washington DC, where he worked as an award-winning correspondent for NPR.
He traveled to Jerusalem during the Palestinian uprising and filed reports from Kurdish refugee camps during the Persian Gulf crisis, solving disability-related problems as he went along. On one assignment described in his book, Hockenberry decided to leave his wheelchair behind and travel to a remote site on muleback, packing a supply of hydrogen peroxide so he could clean his catheters in the desert. The mule eventually ran off, abandoning him by the road, but even waiting on the ground for rescue amid a flood of refugees wasn't as harrowing as his attempts to rent a hand-control-adapted car in Jerusalem.
When people ask him if he ever wonders what life would be like if he hadn't been injured, Hockenberry said, he has trouble answering, since he believes his injury offered him the chance to define himself. "To me, it almost makes more sense to think of having missed my accident and really screwed up.
"If some bozo were to come up with a shot (to cure paralysis), it would be like another car accident to me, after 20 years in this chair. I'd say, 'Oh no, I already learned how to roll over and get up twice, and I've got to do it again?'"
However, Hockenberry said he does dislike being pigeonholed because of his wheelchair. Many of the adventures he relates in his book represent his effort to "escape this sense of categorization, that somebody will know one fact about you, or two facts about you, and decide your whole life."
As an alternate perspective on disability, he told the story of meeting his seven-year-old niece, who had been told about his paralysis by her mother before the meeting took place. The little girl came up and tapped his knee, saying, "you can't feel that, can you?" When Hockenberry agreed, she hit him somewhat harder and asked again, then pinched him, and finally asked, "if a bee stung you, could you feel that?" Hockenberry said "no."
His niece thought about it for awhile, then smiled and declared, "then you're not afraid of bees!"
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