When I went back to college in the 80’s, I needed a way to earn money without wearing myself out, or locking myself into a schedule that conflicted with my changing classes. Hoping to pick up odd jobs, perhaps running errands, I placed an ad in the local paper: “Almost Anything for a Buck!”
Not long after, I received a call from a gentleman named Dick Maxwell. He was second in command of OSU Office of Disability Services, a retired Marine – there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine – who’d spent several decades as a champion of quadriplegia. Like many handicapped individuals in need of extraordinary care, he sometimes found it difficult keeping care providers in his employ.
Dick thought my ad indicated I was a woman willing to give just about anything a try. He was right.
My mother, Norma Pfaff Michel, was a juvenile diabetic whose condition turned terminal when I was seven. My father, Dr. Don K. Michel, expected me to do my part in caring for her, so I’d gotten excellent early training in home health care. This experience made me perfect for Dick’s needs, after a little special training in the particulars of caring for a man with severe paralysis.
Within a few weeks, I withdrew my ad, and began working exclusively for Dick Maxwell.
Dick taught me that his handicap was really only a small part of who he was. He’d been born just a few blocks from the OSU campus, and except for his time in the Marines, he’d spent most of his life living in the heart of Columbus. He’d lived a full, very busy, and productive life. Whatever he decided he wanted or needed done, Dick found a way to do, and he never let anything stop him.
A little thing like a spinal cord injury was just a bump in the road for a warrior like Dick.
He’d been in college when the accident occurred. Dick was a Phi Delt, playing fraternity football when he was injured. It was the last play of the last game of the season. Dick had possession of the ball, and was heading down the field when he was tackled. As usual, the opposing team piled on top of him as he was brought down.
Dick was holding the ball to his chest when he fell. The ball acted as a fulcrum. Under the weight of the other players, his spine snapped between his shoulders, leaving him paralyzed from his armpits down.
In an instant, this tough Marine found himself thrust into a new way of life.
A few weeks later, as he was recovering in OSU hospital, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Dick told me JFK’s death hurt him more than his physical injury. Even then, he considered a broken back to be a small event in the larger scheme of the world he lived in.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, Dick was determined to remain as independent and productive as possible. Many of the tools that mobility impaired individuals use today can be attributed to Dick Maxwell’s refusal to let others do for him. He helped design arm braces that allowed a variety of utensils to be attached to them, and he worked to optimize his control over his hands so that he could once more write, feed himself, and drink from a cup.
Many people give up when facing a future constrained by quadriplegia, but Dick never considered surrendering. He told me he believed it was his fate. Just before the accident, he’d been preparing to graduate from college, and was slated to do a tour of duty in Vietnam. Dick felt certain that, had he not been injured playing football, he’d have suffered a similar injury serving his country.
As far as he was concerned, God had given Dick a mission. It was his duty to make the world a better place for those with physical limitations. He’d been assigned the job of trailblazer, and it was his job to set an example. Suicide was not an option.
Instead, Dick overcame every setback to finish his degree and graduate. He found employment with OSU, and worked his way up to a position of responsibility where he could do everything in his power to encourage others to succeed, despite what many would consider insurmountable obstacles.
His very presence in OSU Disability Services was a testament to what those with disabilities can accomplish if they set their minds to it. Dick had no patience with those who used their handicap as an excuse to fail; he scorned those who clung to self-pity. He never viewed himself as a quadriplegic. Dick was just a guy, like everyone else.
If there’s one thing I learned from him that I wish I could make the world understand, it’s that a person with a disability is not their disability. Handicaps don’t define a person. A disability is just another characteristic, like eye color or height or how you dress.
Dick was never “the quadriplegic”. It’s more accurate to call him “the Marine” than anything else.
Because he wanted to live indepently, Dick became involved in the construction of an apartment complex for those who’ve become chairoteers. This wheelchair accessible housing was dubbed ‘Creative Living’, and it’s still operating in central Columbus, Ohio. It’s a model for accessible housing, giving those with mobility issues a chance to live a fully functional life. Publicity about Dick’s lack of housing was the inspiration for this organization.
Dick also worked hard to bring the ADA into being. He fought to have curbs modified with ramps so those of us on wheels don’t get stuck at the edge of the sidewalk. Dick Maxwell insisted on living in the mainstream of life, and allowed nothing to push him out of the current of progress.
Above all, this man fine-tuned his sense of humor. On one occasion, I remember taking him to pick up his updated disabled parking plates. The clerk spoke to Dick in a very loud voice, pronouncing each word carefully, as if being in a wheelchairiot was a sign of deafness. I got a little irate at her behavior, but Dick told me to chill, and pretended he couldn’t hear her!
By the time we left, it was clear the girl was quite proud of her skill in dealing with her latest customer. I laughed all the way back to the van. With Dick, the joke was on her.
When we travelled in the van, I may have held the wheel in my hands, but it was Dick who was actually driving! He’d monitor my speed, making sure I maintained exactly the right pace, telling me when to change lanes, and figuratively holding my reins during every maneuver. Some people might have called him a backseat driver, but I think his tutelage improved my driving skills. The only time I got annoyed was during a very intense night drive through the hills of southern Ohio, on a visit to his dad’s. His comments were breaking my concentration, so I finally told him to shut up.
Luckily, Dick was big enough to realize I needed a little space, so he didn’t fire me for talking back!
Dick Maxwell was always a man in a hurry. His signature phrase was: “Hit it and git it!” There’s no time to waste when there’s so much to accomplish. Life’s too short to squander. And a disability is just another part of life.