By Harsh Thakkar, Spinal Cord Injury Peer Wellness Specialist, MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital and President, United Spinal Metro DC Chapter
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali
As an athlete, I never thought about the possibility of playing sports without, running, jumping, pivoting or using lateral movement. I had never encountered this dilemma until June 2006, when I attempted wheelchair basketball for the first time. I was 21 years old. Exactly six months prior, to the day, I was a victim of gun violence and sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI). According to the medical model of disability, disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities.” As someone who had played sports their whole life, I never thought I would have to relearn how to live my life, let alone play sports using a wheelchair.
As I rolled into the basketball gym, I saw people using sports wheelchairs for the first time. They came over to me, introduced themselves and asked me questions about my life and interest in wheelchair basketball. As I answered their questions, the feeling of fear took over my body. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be good at something I had spent my whole life doing. I was afraid I was going to disappoint the guys I had just met. I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy playing the game anymore. I was afraid it was going to be too hard! All of my fears came true within the first 10 minutes of playing. However, by the end of the two-hour practice, the fears and frustrations turned into potential and a renewed love for the game!
Something even more miraculous happened as we were all leaving practice that first day. I saw the guys I had just played wheelchair basketball with, independently getting into cars, some of them with their families, some of them alone. A few of them mentioned how they had to get to work early the next day, and a couple of them even said they owned their own homes and businesses. That’s when it clicked! I wasn’t going to sit in the house, withering away, because I had a disability. I was going to be a contributing member of society.
That day changed the course life for me. I refused to let disability negatively impact my life. Instead, I expanded my knowledge of disability and discovered the social model of disability. The social model of disability states, “disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for people with disabilities.” It is societal norms, environmental barriers and stigmas that hinder progress for a person living with a disability.
I have come a long way since the day I tried wheelchair basketball for the first time. I was recruited, and subsequently received a scholarship, to play basketball at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. During my time there, what I learned on the court was as important as the knowledge I gained in the classroom. I learned how to interact with people with disabilities, how to raise disability awareness in the community and I volunteered, as a peer mentor, for other individuals with SCIs.
After graduation, I worked as a contractor for the Paralympic Military program at Fort Belvoir Army Base in Virginia and through continued efforts of networking and expanding my knowledge, I obtained my current position at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) as a SCI Peer Wellness Specialist. I am also the president of the Metro DC Chapter of the United Spinal Association.
As a SCI Peer Wellness Specialist, I coordinate two different programs. The first is a peer mentorship program that connects newly injured individuals with SCIs to those who are successfully living with it. The second program, No Limits Adaptive Fitness, promotes exercise for individuals with neurological disabilities who have mobility impairments.
As for wheelchair basketball, I am the team manager for, and continue to play on, the MedStar sponsored team, NRH Punishers. I also enjoy many other sports including tennis, water-skiing and kayaking.
I have been supported on my journey by a cast of organizations, people and teammates turned friends. Throughout my life, so far, there have been many realizations about how empowering sports are. Sports can be a vehicle that you share with teammates as the passengers. In the end, you reach the destination together, but what really matters, is the journey you took together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Harsh Thakkar is currently a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Peer Wellness Specialist at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, President of the Metro DC Chapter of the United Spinal Association and team manager for the NRH Punishers, a wheelchair basketball team sponsored by MedStar. Having personally experienced the transformative power of participating in sports, Harsh has become a strong advocate for individuals with disabilities, helping those with disabilities become as independent as possible, in all aspects of life.