Adapting our traditions to match our conditions, thanks to paralysis

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on February 15, 2019 # Mobility

One of the greatest characteristics of the human condition is our ability to adapt.

Just as our ancestors have evolved over a span of centuries, most of us who become paralyzed as adults are forced to adapt to our situation, and quickly. Our limited time hospitalized or in acute rehabilitation settings is spent learning how to accomplish the simple things that we once took for granted. These include caring for our bodily functions, protecting our health, learning about the variety of programs that can help support us and how to rejoin a world that is often inaccessible to us.

When we encounter one of those inaccessible situations, our ability to adapt can come in handy. Perhaps that is best illustrated by the old adage "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." I did not anticipate how important that ability would be as my family and I have been required to make quite a bit of “lemonade” during the 31 years I have been paralyzed due to my cervical spinal cord injury. It didn't take long after my discharge from the hospital for this skill to come in handy.

The first location I moved to upon discharge was a small studio apartment. There was room for a bed and a small computer table, but no dining room table or extra chairs for guests. One of our family's holiday traditions prior to my accident was to have a sit-down dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, just as in a Norman Rockwell painting. In reality, that often changed as finding a Christmas tree, skiing, hunting or parental visitation schedules (because of an earlier divorce) interfered with the fancy dinner plans.

Without room to cook and serve a meal to guests, I would not be serving as the host for my first post-injury Thanksgiving. Fortunately, an old family friend invited the three of us for dinner, and it would require only a two-hour drive each way.

When we planned to depart, the highways were blanketed with fresh snow and there were dozens of vehicles involved in accidents; it was not safe for us to travel. Finding a restaurant that was open on the holiday led us to the Sizzler Family Steakhouse, with their special of steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp. There was hardly anyone else in the restaurant, and the food was great at a reasonable price. We had such a good time that we repeated this the next year. Our first family tradition change had occurred.

The next opportunity to adapt a family tradition to meet my capabilities with paralysis occurred at Christmastime. With three grandsons growing fast and a large group of extended family members and friends, it was not possible to invite everyone to a house for a meal or to share the magic of the season. That is when my daughters came up with the unique idea of doing Christmas Eve bowling.

Invitations are extended to all family members, friends and their family members, to gather at a local bowling alley for an afternoon of bowling, eating, exchanging holiday cookies or other treats, and giving the older kids a pocketful of quarters to play video games in the arcade. The bowling lanes are accessible, with ball ramps available for anyone who wants to bowl from a wheelchair. The youngest members of the group often try bowling for the first time, aided by gutter guards that keep everything in the lane instead of heading for the gutters.

This is an activity that is unaffected by weather, since everything occurs indoors. The bowling alley restaurant does a good job, the arcade machines make sure no one leaves with any quarters, and everyone goes home with an assortment of Christmas cookies to enjoy at their smaller family gatherings later that day or the next. The tradition has been going on for 13 years, and I highly recommend it if looking for a family-friendly activity that is inclusive for all ages, with or without bowling experience.

We all need to adapt to our situations, but it is important to help our families adapt along with us. It is not always easy, but the rewards are great when everyone is included.

© 2019 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.