Last night I went to a lecture by Mark Zupan, a gold medalist on the U.S. Paralympics rugby team. He wasn’t invited to speak because of his athletic pursuits, rather because he shares his story in order to help dispel myths about people with disabilities. At age 18, Zupan was involved in an accident after a night of drinking and ended up paralyzed.
Rather than wallow in pity, Zupan claims that the accident was the best thing that ever happened to him. It allowed him to travel internationally with the rugby team, star in the movie Murderball that won the Sundance Film Festival award and landed him at the Oscars and have a host of experiences that would not have come his way otherwise.
Zupan’s message wasn’t heroic or preachy — he was showing by example that people in wheelchairs can live. When asked what the biggest barrier was that he faced, he instantly answered in a loud voice: “HAVING PEOPLE TALK TO ME LIKE THIS! I’m short; I’m not deaf.” Zupan encouraged people to have normal conversations with people who are in wheelchairs and not treat them with kid gloves. He told stories of his friends who always made him drive because he got the best parking places, who borrowed his wheelchair to “get a better view” of the ladies, and who went with him at airports because they got to go to the head of the line.
Zupan also spoke of his friend who was driving during the accident. “My dad took him aside and said ‘You are not at fault, but you are responsible.'” Zupan acknowledged that his friend had to deal with his own demons caused by not breaking his neck and seeing that Mark had.
Whether you have faced visible adversity or are dealing with internal challenges, Zupan would say that the choice is yours whether or not you choose to live. Normal is what you make it.