Ten years ago Jake Miller, now living in Minneapolis, dove into a Wisconsin lake and broke his neck. He was 17 years old. Miller is now a quadriplegic and in a wheelchair; due to unforeseen circumstances he was unable to visit the lake in Wisconsin this year, to say in his own words, “Ha ha, lake, ha ha, screw you, lake…I’m living, I’m living!” He spent the anniversary of his accident, July 9, in Minneapolis, with a couple of his friends and his mother Terri Fulmer.
Christopher Reeves and Stephen Hawking are Miller’s heroes; Nick Vujicic, born without arms or legs, is a superstar as well. Miller admires these role models because they “don’t let the disability get them down…they lived their life…a normal life.” Miller is exemplary himself. He has chosen hell on wheels as his email persona: he doesn’t let the disability get him down.
What message would Miller like to share about individuals in wheelchairs? “We’re normal people,” he said. Persons in wheelchairs have a physical disability…they may be quadriplegic or paraplegic but “we’re not mentally deficient.” Jake is outgoing, humorous, independent, and intelligent. He is sometimes bemused by but appreciative of the many individuals who offer help while he is out and about in his wheelchair. He thinks that sometimes people believe individuals in wheelchairs need more help than they really do. Jake doesn’t need assistance 24 hours a day.
Yet just as he doesn’t want people to make generalizations about people with disabilities, Miller has learned he should also not make generalizations about others based on appearance or other factors. He gives an example of an incident in which he was heading home at dusk through a rough area of the city when his wheelchair hit a bump and a piece fell off the back. He was stuck. To make matters worse, his wallet slipped off his lap onto the ground. A rather unsavory looking fellow came by, picked up the wallet and put it back on Miller’s lap. As this individual bent down to fix the back of the wheelchair Miller saw a gun under the man’s coat. Miller said we should remember “just because people seem a certain way doesn’t mean they are bad”. This helpful individual then went on his way and Miller returned safely home.
Miller said that although Minneapolis is very wheelchair-friendly, occasionally curbs cut too high in a residential area, curbs which are not shoveled out after a snowstorm, stores without automatic door openers, or doors with circular knobs can pose a problem because they are hard for him to open.
Miller and his caregivers are able to enjoy many activities together. He has partial use of his arms but not his hands or fingers. He can pick up objects with his fingers curled. He cannot use his legs. Jake is medically labeled a quadriplegic perhaps because of the location of his fracture at C5/6. He can swim, employing his arms, with the aid of flotation devices. He likes to fish, although someone has to cast out the line for him. He can play pool. He likes computers and enjoys interactive video games. He loves to shop, especially for the newest electronic gadgets. Miller has fun with Wii Fit and the exercise it affords him for upper body strength. Going out for walks and picnics is enjoyable.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” said Miller. “We’re no different from anyone else. Just because…you see on the outside…there’s a disability, don’t think that’s all there is to (us)…there’s obviously a story behind the wheelchair and why (we’re) in a wheelchair.”
“Just look at it—it can always be worse.” He chuckles defiantly and quotes Elton John— his high school graduation mantra. “I’m Still Standing”! he said. Hell on wheels. Jake Miller. n
This article originally appeared in the Alberta Care-giver, a publication based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.