The Time Everyone Gawked at Me, a Man in a Wheelchair About to Skydive
Have you ever felt so trapped in your life that you would do just about anything to regain the sense of freedom? Well, that’s how I felt back in 2012. For many years, my world was no bigger than my 900 square foot apartment, and I’d fallen into the same routine day in and day out. I needed to do something crazy, something nobody would’ve expected — not even myself.
Without a thought of hesitation that’s when I decided: skydiving. I did a quick Google search and found the number to a local airstrip 30 minutes outside of town that offered tandem jumps. I called them up right then and there and scheduled my jump for two weeks later. Immediately after hanging up, I asked myself aloud, “What did I just do?” I couldn’t bail out now; there was a “no money back” clause. Either I’d jump within the year, or I just made this company free money.
The day arrives and my younger brother and I arrive at the airstrip to find out that I’m scheduled behind a large choreography jump and would have to wait a little while. Turns out “a little while” means five hours, with no way for me to use the bathroom. A younger guy about 28 crouches next to me in my chair and introduces himself as my tandem partner. After a couple minute discussion on how things were going to go down, he excuses himself to go get the equipment prepared. A few moments later, an older gentleman, who had a striking resemblance to Hank from “Breaking Bad,” walks up and informs me that he would actually be the one taking me up. This makes me even more nervous; it gives me the feeling that the company or their expert jumpers don’t really know how to deal with disabilities. I guess I was their first wheelchair skydiver. But his confidence puts me back at ease as we work together to put on my jumpsuit and harness.
As I sit in my wheelchair, all suited up, waiting for the prop plane to descend and pick up us up, quite a few of the staff and remaining spectators stand, quite surprised at my presence. They’re asking, “Are you jumping?” as if the jumpsuit isn’t an indication. Some may consider this a little disrespectful — another set of ableists underestimating the disabled — but I’m proud. I was their “first,” and I was setting an example for others that disability knows no limits, not even gravity.
My brother and “Hank” wheel me out to the edge of the dirt tarmac as the plane pulls up. Hank gently picks me up, sets me in through the open side of the plane and helps me sit up as he slides in behind me. The plexiglass door closes, and I watch my brother as we slowly pull away from him, hoping at this point he remembers to record me on my cell phone as he waits for me on the ground. I rest my head back onto my partner’s chest while we make the 15-minute climb to 10,000 feet — not without first watching the ground descend away from the plane through the see-through door.
We reach our destination and people start immediately bailing out, including a kid who looks no older than 16 jumping on his own. Hank and I scoot to the edge of the door and hang our feet out of the plane. He yells, “Are you ready?” All I can muster is a simple head nod. “Three… two…” and without even getting to one we hurl out of the plane while I clutch my harness around my chest.
I think I was too busy trying to remember to breathe to pay attention to the initial fall. I do recall how the world appeared as if I was looking at it through a fishbowl. As soon as the parachute came out, everything went quiet, and I remember looking forward and being able to see the sunset at the edge of the horizon. It didn’t even feel like we were falling; we were just floating in time.
The ground began to come at us ever faster, so Hank positioned his legs under mine, lifting them up as we swooped in, gracefully sliding across the ground to a stop on our butts. That was my favorite moment of the entire experience (until I smelled the aroma of cow manure).
Could I have been angry that there were no accessible bathrooms and that I had to hold it the entire time? Sure. Could I have been upset by all of the amazed and confused stares? Absolutely. But then I may have prevented myself from experiencing all of what that moment in my life had to offer — not only for myself but for those who saw me do it.
I will never see the world the same again, and they will never see disability as incapability again either.