Understanding Disability: Spinal cord injury doesn’t stop Santa Fe man from seeking adventures
The World Health Organization estimates every year between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury from an accident.
Studies report that men account for 61 percent of all traumatic spinal cord injuries and women 39 percent.
At 17 years old, Gene Rodgers had plans to homestead in Alaska until he fell from a cliff, breaking his neck and causing instant paralysis from the shoulders down.
Remarkably, that did not stop Rodgers from traveling to six continents and 44 countries since his accident 40 years ago.
Research indicates personal interests will remain the same, even after a traumatic injury, yet often the realities of everyday life prevent many from pursuing their dreams, especially after experiencing a severe disability.
Nevertheless, Rodgers continues to pursue his interests; skydiving, sailing, scuba diving, sailplaning and cliff rapelling — all in and out of his wheelchair.
“My big advantage was meeting people, who knew no bounds. And they included me in their activities and that has made all the difference going forward,” said Rodgers.
On a 2003 expedition to the Mount Everest base camp, he said he met Gov. Johnson. “I let him know how proud I was to see a fellow New Mexican up on the mountain.”
“I never overcame my disability, I learned to adapt to it,” said Rodgers.
He said, this means asking for what you need and getting on with life. “For instance, I asked the former owner of Tomasitas, Georgia Maryol, if she would fix a problem for me. I loved eating at her restaurant, but needed a safe place to park. She thought it was a great idea, installing an accessible concrete pad right next to the front door and this was before any government requirement,” said Rodgers. Today, the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law require all commercial and governmental facilities to have accessible parking, including van-accessible spaces.
Rodgers is never afraid to ask for extra help. For example, he said he always asks restaurant staff to cut his food in the kitchen, so he can eat using his adaptive folk, which he secures with a Velcro strap around his wrist.
He said a favorite quote is by the poet Maya Angelou: “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it!”
“Unfortunately, to be independent, I had to move away from my family in Cleveland, Ohio. I was offered a job in Santa Fe working to help others live independently. That changed my life,” said Rodgers.
Rodgers obtained a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Kent State and an MBA from The University of New Mexico. In 1998, he was awarded a Switzer Research Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Traveling can be difficult. I use a manual chair when I travel and require someone to push me. Since I pay for my attendant’s travel, I am looking at hefty travel expenses. Factor in foreign currency, language barriers and lack of familiarity with the landscape … that is a huge challenge,” said Rodgers.
“While in Rio de Janeiro, I wanted to see Cristo Redentor, the giant statue of Jesus Christ, high on a hill. We took an elevator as high as it would go. To go any farther, we would need to use an escalator. This was not really safe in a wheelchair. One of the park attendants got behind me, pushed me onto the escalator, and up we went. He spoke Portuguese, but very little English. He did not understand that I wanted my travel buddy to take me up. There I was on the escalator. It was dangerous, but I made it to the top,” said Rodgers.
Rodgers produces the Gene and Dave internet show, provides motivational talks and documents his adventures on his website www.genosplace.org.
or more information on disability travel and recreation resources visit http://www.makoa.org/travel.htm.
By Andy Winnegar, The Santa Fe New Mexican