To be honest, before my injury I was not a compassionate, sensitive person. I did not feel sympathy for the hungry kids in Africa, the oppressed citizens of China, or countless other dire, unfortunate situations around the world and at home. I read a lot of Ayn Rand books and didn’t even take my clothes to Goodwill as I felt that it would only encourage low income individuals to stay on charity.
Back then I had a full functioning body, no allergies, and no sickness of any kind. I was young, agile, tough and independent. I didn’t need nor want anybody’s help and so thought nobody else should either. My entire social mentality was uncaring and unforgiving.
This of course all changed the day after Thanksgiving, 2004, when I incurred a C1-C2 spinal cord injury, leaving me paralyzed from the neck down on permanent ventilator life-support.
The following three months in the hospital were not just about coming to terms with my tragic physical condition, but my enlightened mental condition as well. My first realization of this was when I was still in ICU. The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami had just occurred a couple days before, and I laid there watching CNN in horror thinking about the loss of life; the pain and suffering people were going through and I became physically ill and started to cry. My injury had broken through the wall I held up before between myself and my fellow human beings, and was in some small way grateful for my physical loss as I gained back something so much more valuable: My sense of humanity.
I was discharged from the hospital a blank slate. My self-image, confidence, and identity had been shattered into a million pieces. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life; all I knew was that I wanted, needed to help others. I didn’t have a van or my own transportation so I walked everywhere. I sought to share a story, a laugh, a cry every chance I got with others in need. I visited my elderly neighbor across the hall from my apartment and went to doctors appointments at Shepherd Center early and stayed late afterwards to peer support those recently injured.
Other opportunities presented themselves as I got to know more people. I became involved with the AmeriCorps program and spend about 20 hours a week working with the Disability Services Counselor at Chattahoochee Tech helping students with disabilities go to college. I get textbooks in alternate format, Proctor tests, identify and implement assistive technology and accommodations, answer questions, solve concerns and get them whatever resources they need in order to succeed.
I also gave testimony to the Appropriations Committee at the Capitol concerning funding of the waiver programs, and have talked to many other legislators including the Lieutenant Governor about funding and implementation of the various disability related social programs in the state. I gave a presentation at the April 2007 Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund annual planning retreat advocating for the institutionally vulnerable, and I continually seek out new ways of making a difference in people’s lives.
Being an advocate isn’t a 9-to-5 job. As a matter of fact I don’t even like the label “advocate.” It makes me think of lobbyists. I don’t “clock-in” when I go to Shepherd Center, nor do I “clock-out” when I go to school. I ask little kids if they have any questions for me if I see them staring at me in the grocery store. I’ve caught myself giving short speeches to my classmates about the need for social programs and their positive impact for the community. Call these things what you will; “advocate,” “peer supporter” or “volunteer.” It’s all the same thing in the end; it’s that little bit of humanity in us lending its smile and helping hand to another human being. To see that smile be returned is why I do what I do.
By Justin Cochran