Jul 07

Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence

Posted by Soliloquy in Adults with disabilities | Physically Disabled

A journalist for National Public Radio and ABC News recounts the challenges he has faced as a paraplegic at home and abroad, from the dangers of war-torn Iraq and Jerusalem to discrimination at home. Reprint…. More >>

Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence

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  • Upon my discharge from rehab after becoming a paraplegic myself, there was a long list of recommended books and a stack of books that had been given to me by well intending friends and family. These books were sterile and had been written by walking people. This book is a fantastic departure from the clinical spinal cord injury books. This book helped prepare me in a very different way than the help I received from family, friends, doctors or therapists for some of the wide variety of challenges I now face in daily living. This book is simply a must read for new paraplegics and their families.

    Honestly, I would prioritize this over the books from Christopher Reeve.

  • This book contains the memoirs of John Hockenberry, a well-known journalist who is disabled. Hockenberry takes us through a blow-by-blow account of the accident which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He explains the nature and extent of his injuries and describes his experiences in the rehab hospital where he learned how to manage the needs of daily life from his wheelchair. He then takes us through the details of his young adult years, his education, marriage, and career. The only aspect of the book that I did not like was that Hockenberry occasionally gets a little heavy-handed with philosophizing. The extensive self-analysis, however is understandable, since this is very much a book about coming to terms with his life-to-date and his culture.

    It was the 1980 eruptions at Mt. St. Helens that got Hockenberry his big break with NPR. Hockenberry was covering the reports for a local radio station in Eugene, Oregon, where he was living at the time, and his reports drew the attention of the national NPR news editors. They never suspected that their intrepid Oregonian journalist was in a wheelchair until the day he was not able to phone in a report before the deadline because he couldn’t locate an accessible phone. NPR found that Hockenberry was quite talented at finding, writing, and reading news stories, and brought him to their headquarters in D.C. Later, Hockenberry was chosen to be the Middle East correspondent for NPR, stationed in Jerusalem. It was there, far from home and the Americans with Disabilities Act legislation, where Hockenberry faced tremendous challenges that taught him much about the human family.

    Although I had listened to countless news reports from Hockenberry on NPR, I never knew about his disability until I heard him giving an interview on NPR about this book. The thought of someone who is paralyzed from the chest down voluntarily navigating through a war zone, managing to transport himself through terrain where wheels can’t go, is simply mind-boggling. Hockenberry doesn’t tell these stories to boast about his strengths- -instead, his goal is to explain how he is an ordinary person with his own foibles and problems. But his problems aren’t insurmountable, thanks to his creativity and determination, and to the willingness of others to meet him partway at times with compassion or a shift in habits or expectations. He’s not asking to pull less weight than others because of his disability, but only to be allowed to pull the weight in the ways that he is able, without barriers placed in his way.

    Working in Jerusalem gave Hockenberry a unique vantage point for observing the US and its relation to handicapped people. He writes “It is very American to make these ironclad distinctions between the individual merit of a person and opportunities for advancement that have to do with family connections, wealth, wheelchairs, race, and other intangibles…In America the primary virtue is in doing something `despite the wheelchair,’ or `even though you are black or a woman.’ Succeed by incorporating what makes you different into your goal and you are perceived as having cheated.” Later he notes “In America access is always about architecture and never about human beings. Among Israelis and Palestinians, access was rarely about anything but people. While in the U.S. a wheelchair stands out as an explicitly separate experience from the mainstream, in the Israel and Arab worlds it is just another thing that can go wrong in a place where things go wrong all the time.” Hockenberry notes how far people in Jerusalem were willing to go out of their way to help him when the terrain was inaccessible, and contrasts that with his experience trying to use the New York subway, where most people refused to even look at him, let alone offer to assist him in stations without elevators.

    Having lived in the Middle East myself for five years, I think Hockenberry was probably right about Israelis and Palestinians more readily acknowledging the humanity of situations involving access for wheelchairs. But I’m not sure that non-disabled Americans are intentionally uncompassionate. As Americans, we are taught that disabled people wish to be independent and don’t want any attention drawn to their special circumstances, and they don’t want us to push their chairs or grab their white canes. We assume that because there is a law guaranteeing access for all, that access exists and is sufficient and already present in the buildings where it is required. Once the law has been put in place, we assume any needs have already been met. Most of us are unfamiliar with the needs of disabled people- -we don’t know how to act around disabled people, what we should do, and what we shouldn’t, so perhaps that’s why we try not to see the disabled. In that respect, this book fills a dire need: it brings us into the day-to-day life of a remarkable yet ordinary disabled person, introducing us to his life story, dreams, and desires.

  • I want to keep my review short because, if you have not read this book, reading my review will take up some of the time in which you could be reading the real book. When “Moving Violations” was first published, I heard a review of it on NPR. John Hockenberry is an NPR alum so I expected the book to be almost as good as the review led me to believe. I ordered it from Amazon and devoured it in almost no time. It was actually better than the radio review had led me to expect. A month later, I got a call from Seattle that delivered horrific news. My 21-year-old son had been in a contest with gravity and gravity had won. Although he had just had 18 hours of surgery, there was no way to know if he would ever walk again. Through the years since that time, I have read “Moving Violations” many times. It initially gave me entrance to a new world and was much more helpful to both my son and I than all the rehab publications combined. I knew, from the moment I answered that phone call that both my son and I had crossed into the Twilight Zone and nothing would ever be the same again. The Twilight Zone, however, had at least one map. My son’s journey was, and continues to be, unique (as all such journeys are). I did feel, from the very beginning, that we had a preview of some of the directional signposts and even some of the scenic overlooks. I cannot help but think that our family has been living and learning about this new life in a richer way than would never have been possible if we had not read this book. As soon as my son came home from rehab it became clear that he had lost his will to live. I had a captive audience and started reading “M V” aloud. It is well written and mirrors many of the dilemmas in the life of a young male with spinal cord damage. I think it only took two days for my son to get interested enough that he started reading it himself. This book was truly one of the first things that helped him recover his will to live. Living with a catastrophic spinal cord injury is not even at the bottom of the list of interesting travel sites, and while I cannot believe that anyone would take that path voluntarily, “M V” is proof that, along with the horror, there can be adventure and possibilities in life; possibilities that could be so easily missed. So…READ IT! While spinal cord injury may never be a part of your personal life, sooner or later something awful could be. As the Eagles remind us, “The wolf is always at the door.” In whatever guise the wolf presents itself, you will have learned something useful about what to do when or if the wolf appears.

  • I’m disabled. I detest almost all writing on disability. John Hockenberry is the only person I know who can write about it in a way that doesn’t set my teeth on edge or have me flinging the book across the room by the end of the first chapter. I won’t insult the author by saying that this book is “about” disability — it’s about one particular journalist — but he sure knows how to tell it like it REALLY is!

  • From buying it (i think) 2 days early and reading over a very nice summer weekend in june 1995, i knew this book was – just- different. Amazing use of the language, probably the best crip biography to date (and it’s well over a decade now. Based my Honors Thesis in College on what Hockenberry wrote in this book, traveled miles and miles to see his off broadway play, speaking dates across the country, and even got to know myself – and him, better as well, he ain’t on nbc anymore, but this still stands as probably one of the must reads in disability studies or crip liberation.

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