Gary Becker: Escaping the Corner
Meet Gary Becker, a seventies and eighties record enthusiast and fierce thrill seeker.
The 59 year old was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1984 and has been using a wheelchair ever since. Based in Kitchener, he completed rehab in his hometown, but recalls that his six month program was barely equipped for those who had sustained spinal cord injuries, and was instead focused on stroke patients. Still, he shares “My family was very instrumental in my recovery and reintroduction to the world. You get out of rehab what you put in. I learned quickly that no one’s going to bend over backwards to become part of your life. You have to become part of society. It all comes down to you.”
Finding Meaning and Thrill in Sport
This philosophy proved to be useful in navigating a new life with a physical disability. By the third year following injury, Gary found himself gliding in the lake whilst water skiing. 34 years later, he still lights up reminiscing about the experience. “You’re about three inches above the water with a 200 horsepower motor on the back of the boat. Such a thrill,” he shares. It was through SCIO’s earlier initiatives that Gary found himself reveling in sport. The formerly known CPA (Canadian Paraplegic Association) was hosting a seminar on accessible water sport, and upon seeing the notice, he was intrigued enough to show up to the event, though he was unaware he would be trying water skiing, that very day! “It turned out I was comfortable in the water, so it was great.”
On top of the introduction to water sports, he reflects on the sense of community that was shared at the event. “It was after I got married and it was by the lake. We had a barbecue and people really connected and shared information and resources with each other.”
The Importance of Peer Support
Indeed, peer support played a crucial role in Gary’s transition to life with a spinal cord injury. “The Peer Support Program operated out of Toronto and it was very helpful. There was also a magazine that highlighted upcoming events,” he says, “And I was always saying to myself ‘I gotta check that out!'”
His next adventure in sports would be downhill skiing in Kitchener, where a program called Track 3 in the Region of Waterloo was designed for people with disabilities and those who suffered strokes and allowed him to hit the slopes. “I sat in a little box on top of a wider ski and would go down the hill back and forth.” This turned into an activity that took place twice a week, with the park being close to home.
His journey in sports continued and in 1999, he picked up sailing, first with Hamilton Able Sail and then with the Bell Mobility Cup out of Toronto Harbour With many nations present, Gary was part of a three man crew that represented Ontario at the games. “I came in 32nd out of 64 sailors. There were people from Australia and Europe. All of us used wheelchairs and CPA was a big supporter of the event,” he shares. Preparation was intense, requiring Gary to drive to Toronto twice a week, for three months.
“The boats were called a Martin 16,” says Gary. Indeed, the boats were 300 lbs. with a lead bulb attached to the keel of the boat which makes it impossible to capsize (tip over). The inner hull of the boat is filled with foam flotation that makes the boat unsinkable, even if it is totally flooded. He recalls inviting his girlfriend along for the ride once, who rode as a passenger behind him. “I called it the grandma seat,” he laughs, “It was entirely up to me to get us back to safety.”
Getting Oneself Out of the Corner
In reflecting on quality of life with a disability, Gary continually expresses the need to stay involved. “Become a part of society. Attend community events, connect with others. Don’t become shut in, because that’s a quick way to become depressed and isolated,” he says.
With a chuckle, he quotes Dirty Dancing, the hit eighties movie. “Nobody puts baby in a corner,” he says, “Do not let yourself get pushed in a back corner! Involve yourself.”
He likewise stresses the importance of seeking out connections, be it mentally, physically or spiritually. “I go to the bar and I still look for the prettiest ladies and try to be social. I was also married for 15 years,” he shares.
Until three years ago, Gary drove a car, which enhanced his quality of life tremendously. “I had a 1983 Grand Prix. It was a silvery grey and I would love driving around and listening to seventies and eighties hits, including Bryan Adams, ZZ Top and Deep Purple.”
For Gary, escaping the proverbial corner has come from the joy of sport and pushing himself to achieve certain goals. He lives independently in a two-story accessible townhouse and raves about his home environment. “It’s a terrific, safe community and it is built with accessibility in mindI have an accessible bathroom and stair glide. Everything is close by from stores, to cafes and bars.” Because Gary was Involved at the municipal level before the complex was built,in 1986, he was able to share his input to ensure that accessible units were included in the co-op.
“I was there with the mayor Elizabeth Witmer for the official sod turning.” Still, he expresses a need for more accessible housing. “There are terribly long waitlists for people with disabilities and not enough accessible housing. More needs to be done.”
Aging with an SCI and COVID
For Gary, aging with an SCI has not come without its challenges. After sustaining a broken hip following a fall from his wheelchair, transferring in and out of a car became very difficult, which put an end to his ability to drive. The lack of mobility has certainly impacted his independence, especially during COVID with family members living far.
“COVID impacted everyone. It was frustrating because I was used to being out and about, but there was lots of stigma whenever I would go out to the mall and so forth.” In reflecting on the past two years, he expresses that being forced to isolate has shrunk his circle significantly, impacting his mental health and quality of life.
Words of Advice to Others
When it comes to words of advice for those who are newly injured, Gary has several things to note. “It starts with you,” he says, “There can be hundreds of programs designed for those with disabilities, but if they are not being used, they are for nothing. We need to pass along information to each other and form networks. I always had people looking out for me, showing me activities and resources which helped push me along and got me involved. SCIO’s magazine has helped me stay informed.”
In a final thought, he speaks with great enthusiasm, “There are lots of walking people out there who haven’t done half as much as I have. I will pat myself on the back for that.”