for Technical Assistance
Connecting people with disabilities who are facing day-to-day barriers with those who have overcome them.
Hank’s neck was broken between the cervical vertebrae 4 and 5. He is a quadriplegic. His “Words of Wisdom” for family and friends…
My goal is for people to not see the “Wheelchair.” Treat me as you would others (I’ll ask if I need help), and the “Wheelchair” will soon disappear.
I had been going to Wisconsin for a number of years and watched people attach their hang gliders to their snowmobiles. For a guy of 22, it looked like great fun. So on the fifth of February, 1977, in Coal Valley, Illinois, my friends and I attached my hang glider to the back of a snowmobile and off we went for a day of fun. There was a lot of snow and it was really cold; the wind-chill factor at times was hitting 40 below. The rope I was using was rated for pulling me in normal conditions, but the bitter cold caused the rope to freeze and snap 15 feet in front of me. As I was tow gliding, the angle of the kite is steeper than that of hang gliding, and as a result, when the tow rope snapped I was shot into the air; stalled; then came down head first onto a frozen plowed up corn field.
My saving grace through the trauma that followed was my dad. He and my mom had raised 11 kids; all I could think about was I didn’t want him to raise me all over again. This was the driving force behind my first goal after my injury--not to have my dad worry about me; but to make him proud of me. Of course I had other hopes and dreams--college, job, marriage, home, family, retirement. Hopes and dreams like everyone else.
Obstacles? Everything! I was 22, an accomplished Machinist and Journeyman Cement Mason, and had been a Golden Gloves State Champ of Illinois in 1974 in the light welterweight novice division. In the flash of a moment, my life changed. I no longer had the use of my hands or legs.
At 60, I’ve fulfilled all my dreams; achieved all my goals. Confirmation of my first goal came when my dad said that of all his children, he worried about me the least!
Everyone told me that without the use of my hands, I needed to go to college. College was never my initial goal; I really didn’t think I was college material. But to please everyone, I enrolled at Black Hawk Jr. College in East Moline, Illinois. The college found ways to help me with studies, notes, etc. I earned two Associate Degrees, one in math and one in pre-engineering, and I made the Honor Roll! This was the proof that I needed to transfer to the University of Illinois and pursue a degree from the College of Engineering. While there I lived in Beckwith Hall, a new resident hall for people with disabilities. In fact, I was the first guy to live there. We had medical students live with us for free. Our tuition helped pay for their expenses. They helped us get into bed, helped us get out of bed, and helped us with meals and other daily activities, as needed. It turned out to be a really good deal. I graduated in 1983 with a BS in Software Engineering and a minor in Mechanical Engineering.
In my fourth year of college, they offered a class on how to interview for jobs. I remember they told us not to worry; pick a company that you want to work for but you know will not hire you--do it for practice. Learn the type of questions that will be asked, and think about your answers. Then dress up in your suit and wing tips, and go on an interview. I picked IBM for my practice interview, thinking they wouldn’t hire me--but they did!--as part of their CADAM and CATIA support group! Out of the four job offers I received, I chose IBM and they were great! Even before the ADA, IBM provided anything needed to make my job easily accessible including special furniture that I could roll under. They were really amazing. These simple accommodations allowed me to work for them for 14 years.
My dreams of building a home and raising a family with my wife also came to fruition. We have one child and two grandsons (seven and ten who have 100% of my attention when they are here), and my wife and I are still happily married.
Retirement from IBM? Yes. I worked for IBM from 1983 until I retired in 1997 due to health issues. I was getting pneumonia and bronchitis several times a year. Since retiring my health has improved big time.
Retirement from life?? Absolutely not! Since my retirement from IBM, I have been actively seeking new and innovative ways to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. I have developed four wheelchair patents. One has to do with wheelchairs that tilt side-to-side. Another has to do with the seat of the chair automatically leveling itself when going up or down an incline. The other two have to do with pressure release. Currently, I am working with a patent attorney on five additional patents. The problem is I need money to market them. One day…
I’m very much a positive person and a problem solver. I make sure my environment and my surroundings are all to my liking and I go out a lot. I appreciate all the things the ADA has done for me and others with a disability; I think these laws have definitely made a difference. But, I also believe in solving my own problems. I don’t sit around complaining and waiting for others to solve my problems for me. I’m constantly asking myself “What do I need to do to get this done right?”
As with all families, family members have different opinions when it comes to sharing responsibilities. My family is no different. Among all my siblings, issues like “who and what” each was doing for me was creating an unhealthy environment. Solution—become an “independent” family member by removing myself from this unhealthy environment. As for my parents, I loved my mom and dad to death. I really worshiped the ground my dad walked on; he would do absolutely anything for me. But I wanted him to be my dad--not my caretaker. So I moved just far enough from them that I wasn’t dependent on them, but close enough so I could see them often.
Becoming totally independent of my family was a major obstacle to overcome because I do have to depend on someone. Simply having someone take care of your daily needs such as helping you get in and out of bed can be major. There were many nights I spent waiting for someone to come and they never did. I had to just lay my head on the table and sleep in my chair all night. That happened many, many times. One time the person coming to get me out of bed never showed up. I spent from a Tuesday to a Thursday evening in bed. This was before cell phones. I did have a phone with a hook on the handle that I could pick up, but I knocked it off the bed. On a lighter note (now, not at the time), I can remember a moth landed on the bed while I was stuck there for the most of three days. I was trying to get my arm and push it off the bed, but I only succeeded in rubbing his wings off. He then crawled under the blankets and I just knew he was eating my legs and my feet. After three days of no water and not knowing when someone was going to check on me, I just knew it was eating me alive! I think about that experience now and then, and I laugh, but when you’re desperate and you think the world, as you know it, is coming to an end, you think of the weirdest things. Soon after that experience, I enrolled at the University of Illinois and the medical students who assisted me were definitely more dependable.
At the University of Illinois, I’m pretty sure I was the first quadriplegic to graduate from the College of Engineering, and at that time most things were not ADA accessible. There were no ramps. I can remember at a lot of the buildings I would wait for a group of guys to come by and literally pick up my electric wheelchair, with me in it, and carry me up a flight of stairs to get to class. After class I would again wait until a group of kids would come by, pick me up, and carry me back down the flight of stairs. I never had a problem, though. I mean, kids were always very willing to help me. The biggest incentive for them to help was…simply a smile. If you have a positive personality, people want to help.
Accepting the job at IBM meant moving to Austin on my own, and recruiting help for my daily needs. I was really getting down in the dumps, though, because of the many bladder infections. Gosh, I was living on my own, wondering if someone was going to show up each day to get me out of bed, and I was sick all the time with bladder infections and bronchitis. Every day was literally becoming a struggle. Then my doctor told me I had to be admitted to the hospital for additional treatment. I drove myself to the hospital and admitted myself. I was really down and felt alone. But my nurse and I got along really well and she told me there was another nurse that I needed to meet. She introduced me to Irma…my future wife. We immediately started talking and I asked her for her phone number (thinking she may not give it to me), but she did. Five days out of the hospital I called her. She came over, and we have been together ever since. We absolutely love each other’s company; it’s a marriage made in heaven.
Make things happen by just putting yourself out there and seeing what happens and think positive. I’ve had very few bad thoughts. I’ve had people ask if I’ve ever thought of killing myself. Never, never, never have I ever thought that! I wake up every day thankful for what I have.
If possible, solve your own problems. My body may be weak, but my mind is not. There are, and always will be, obstacles to overcome, that’s everyone’s life. I have always asked myself, even to this day, “What do I need to do? This has happened. Okay. Now, what do I need to do to fix it? What do I need to do?”
Learn how to ask for help. Someone like me, when you’re dependent upon someone to help you every day, has to must learn how to read people. They, in turn, are reading you. You want people to help, not because they have to, but because they want to help. Most of the time that simply requires a smile.
Be flexible. We were on the cruise ship, Triumph, when it caught fire. Some people were miserable; nothing would have made them happy. They were miserable and they were going to stay miserable! We were down on the second floor and they put three mattresses for me right on the lobby floor, 20 feet from the service desk. I slept for five days on the lobby floor. The boat was constantly tilted; it was never level. But, we still had a good time; we did things; we enjoyed the cruise. We were flexible! We were stuck on the lobby level for five days, but we still managed to enjoy our cruise.
No doubt, my dad. Raising 11 kids--you work. For seven years, he worked two jobs. We never saw him other than when he hitch-hiked home from his first job. My mom would have dinner ready for him, all the kids would line up and he would kick us in the butt because my mom would squeal on us about what happened that day. The kick in the butt was just an “I love you, son” and I loved him back. We kids would give him a big hug and walk with him up the street. He wouldn’t let us stand by him, because he’d have to hitchhike to his second job. He would tell us, “You know somebody standing on the street with 10 kids, they’re not gonna pick you up!” Ha. At midnight he’d hitchhike home. For seven years he did that. He worked really hard to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. We never starved. We never went cold. He was my big influence. I just wanted him to be proud of me and not worry about me.
Initially, I was told I might walk again, but after so many years, I kind of figured it out, that will never happen. Now? My hopes are that they may find ways to improve things such as my bladder function or something to help me cough better. I still have hopes and a positive attitude.
Push forward. It’s your choice. Every day is what you make of it; no one else can do it for you. There are going to be bad days and good days. If you have a bad day, the next day will always be better. Again, be positive. If family and friends see you with a positive attitude and they see you smiling, they’re going to smile. If they see you sitting in the corner crying and pouting, their reaction will also be negative. It’s like with a little kid. You can smile at that little kid and that little kid will smile back. If you frown, that little kid will frown right back!
Public accessibility is the big one. I no longer have to go through kitchens to enter a restaurant!
Regrets at 22?
Yes! That I went hang gliding, ha!
And I would not have had surgery to fuse cervical 3, 4, 5, and 6 to stabilize my neck. At the time, they went over the outside of my skull; attached horseshoe shaped tongs; and added weights to keep my neck straight. After three weeks in this position, I was told surgery would allow me to be in rehab within a week with only a 10 percent loss in movement. Wanting to speed up recovery, I chose surgery. I’m now stuck pretty much looking forward; I have limited sleeping positions; I have spurs growing in my neck; and my neck is constantly hurting. Today, they’re trying to avoid surgery. You see a lot of halos on people.
At 60, physically, I may be dependent on others for most things, but my mind is not my disability, I’m still busy creating and problem solving. Along with working on my patents, I’ve helped by wife start HorizonTec, LLC and, in 2011; I set the Guinness World Record for fastest hands free typing --so my best advice for anyone--take your gifts, and run with them--that’s a positive attitude!
1. Patent 6068280, “Self-Leveling Seat for a Wheelchair”
2. Canadian 2201848, addendum to the US patent 6068280 with minor changes “Self-Leveling Seat for a Wheelchair”
3. Patent 7614699 “Automatically Controlled Therapeutically Shifting Wheelchair Seat”
4. Patent 7635164, “Therapeutic Automated Automatically Controlled Shifting Wheelchair Seat”
Questions or comments may be sent to Hank by e-mailing the Southwest ADA and referencing ADA StoryTeller - Hank in the subject line.