What It’s Like to
Become a Cripple

by
in

In Short: Seatbelts.

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On March 7, 1993, in Woodstock, Conn., eight skydivers decided we would try to make an 8-way freefall formation exiting from two Cessna 182s flying in formation. Skydiving planes have all but the pilot’s seats removed and a special door is installed that can be opened in flight.

Photo supplied by the author.

Three of us in the second plane to take off were sitting backward by the passenger door and I was facing forward at the back of the plane, legs stretched out toward the pilot. The pilot was the only one wearing a seatbelt.

The plane took off and had reached about 100 ft. by the time we got to the end of the runway. Suddenly, the engine stopped and the pilot shut off the master switch and called on the radio that we were going down while he pushed the yoke forward to keep up airspeed.

I had time to see that we had a large field to land in, but not enough time to turn around and get my back to the pilot’s seat, so I took the crash position: knees up, head between my knees and arms wrapped around my legs.

The next thing I knew, we were on the ground and the plane had been stopped dead by the trees at the end of the field. I was lying on my back behind the pilot’s seat and my legs were up and on the three other jumpers, who were getting out of the plane as fast as possible in case of a fire.

As the last one got out, my legs dropped down and I sensed all of the feeling go out of my legs. I was Life Flighted to a hospital in Worcester, Mass. We landed and the last thing I remember was being on a gurney and heading across the tarmac.

When I regained consciousness, my wife and a doctor were at my side and they explained that my spinal cord was severed at mid-chest and that I was a complete paraplegic. A doctor in a wheelchair came in and said that life would get better with time and that my attitude would be the only thing that could hold me back.

I got to skydive again more recently.

The most important thing that he told me was to look at my life going forward and realize that I could still do 90% of the things I used to do, and to concentrate on the things I could still do rather than mourning the things I had lost.

Following that advice was difficult at times, but by two years later I was in college and mostly happy with my life. I try to be approachable and freely talk about life as a cripple and observing that everyone has problems. While mine are more visible than most, mine are not necessarily worse.

I refer to myself only as a cripple because it is a perfectly good word that defines my condition; I am unable to walk. I find it to be a much more honest word than “alternately-abled” or “handicapable.”

Donald Sluter started skydiving while in the Army, packing parachutes for the First Special Forces on Okinawa (but, he’s quick to add, he was “not Special Forces qualified”). After being paralyzed from the chest down he started college, and 27 years later is still a Grad(ual) Student at UMass Amherst. He lives in Whately with his dog, Rudy, and two cats, Smudgie and Bailey.

Editor’s Note: Don is a long-time This is True reader and, yes, this is being published on the 28th anniversary of the plane crash. -rc

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15 thoughts on “Become a Cripple”

  1. I have one hand (half of my left forearm from birth), so I am not in the same league as Mr Sluter. I do agree about not liking “alternately-abled” or “handicapable.”

    I fully agree that attitude is all. If you think you are a cripple, not in the sense Mr Sluter uses it, but in the “my life is over” sense, you will be a cripple and unable to do anything. If you have the attitude of “it’s a new hobby”, then you will do fine.

    A key is a sense of humor. I am curious about Mr Sluter’s jokes. (My name is because I am the “one-armed bandit”.) I will spare the readers from the rest, because this is not about me.

    Bravo Zulu, Mr Sluter!

    Reply
    • I like Callahan’s cartoons, ethnic jokes, Polish, Italian, redneck (in the Dakotas they are Finlander jokes), terrible puns, and sick jokes/gallows humor. Why didn’t Natalie Wood shower on the boat? She knew that she would wash up on shore later.

      A sense of humor is key to life. The alternative is to be constantly angry and frustrated. Humor is a shortcut to perspective. -rc

      Reply
    • He was a resident who had a T-6 or 7 SCI about a year before he came to talk to me. He made it a point to stop by and chat with any new SCI patients, give advice, and answer questions. If I remember correctly, he was in his residency as an anesthesiologist.

      Reply
  2. While I am not as severely handicapped as Mr. Sluter, I did sustain life altering injuries in a 2006 motorcycle accident. I was not able to continue in my career as a machinist/toolmaker, but following your theme of maintaining a good attitude I was able to get through a solid year of in-patient treatment (seven month hospital stay followed by five months of physical rehab). This was followed by several years of follow up care. While I am still unable to do all that I could do before my injuries, I too find that focusing on what I can do is far better than lamenting the things I cannot do. Since I live in Connecticut I actually recall the news story about Mr. Sluter’s accident. I am very glad to hear that he is doing well.

    Reply
  3. Mr. Sluter, and those in similar situations, it can be tough dealing with such lifechangers; however, the fact that you have continued with your life (going to college, doing a skydive, etc.) says volumes about you.

    I am blind, and I agree wholeheartedly about politically-correct words; — i.e., handicapable, differently-abled, and all the other pc words people dream up. I get “unsighted”, “non-sighted”, and the one that makes me grit my teeth, “sightless”. I am blind. The word is in the dictionary; it’s perfectly acceptable.

    Funny how those not actually affected by whatever condition they want to name seem the most insistent on coming up with the name. To me, it’s none of their freaking business! -rc

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  4. This is interesting. In NZ the word cripple is seen as a derogatory term and it’s a bit of a shock to the system to see someone using the term about themselves. I have had health problems and disabilities my whole life and have always felt that it was a lot easier to start this way rather than developing them later in life. I will always admire anyone who strives to live their best life no matter the obstacles.

    Indeed “cripple” is frowned upon here, too, but I salute Don for “taking back” the word. I didn’t even consider changing it! -rc

    Reply
  5. The term most disabled folks I know prefer is just that — “disabled”. Most of us also dislike “differently abled”, “special needs”, and such. A majority, I believe, prefer identity-first language such as “disabled person” (or “blind person” or “autistic person”) to person-first language, such as “person with a disability”. (“Autist” is also gaining traction in the autism community.) Unfortunately school systems tend to use person-first language. I think a lot of these euphemisms were invented by non-disabled folks who are so uncomfortable with the concept that they are unwilling to be direct.

    I’m hard of hearing myself, and have chronic depression (sadly very common among disabled folks). I’ve worked Accessibility at several conventions (rewarding but very tiring). We may not be able to do everything we would be able to absent the disability, but quite often we can do a lot more with the right tools and societal changes. A popular example is the now-ubiquitous curb cuts, which give people who use wheelchairs and scooters and walkers (all of which are amazing tech themselves) more freedom to move independently. But curb cuts also help people with kids in strollers, and bicyclists making the last half-block to their destinations, and other wheeled devices, as well as people who walk with some difficulty and find the tiny ramp easier than an intact curb.

    Anyway, suffice it to say the disabled folks I know generally are just trying to live their lives well, and we use what adaptations and lifestyle changes are useful for that.

    Reply
  6. Plane crashes are hard to read but i’m glad you survived, Donald! Kudos to you & your family with the courage to go forward.

    A good friend of mine, once an RCMP then a private pilot, crashed & burned in Alberta with a famous person aboard, otherwise it wouldn’t have made a ripple in the media. His wife was still grief-shattered when we met at my friend’s mom’s funeral two years later, as the inquiry had not found any reason for this so it came down to ‘pilot error’. Your brave story helps balance that.

    Reply
  7. My son is a wheelchair user, and he says, “The disabled is the only minority that anyone can join.”

    And sometimes instantly, as happened in the story. -rc

    Reply
    • And, honestly, nearly all of us will at some point, in some way and for some length of time. Which makes it extra ghastly how so many of our systems exclude, endanger, or financially burden people with disabilities in so many ways.

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  8. I have known a number of cripples, and most of them tend to use the word; just another example of why I’m not fond of ‘political correctness’, even though my politics are wide-left-6.

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  9. This was a hard read.

    I’m glad Don survived and has handled/learned to live well with his paraplegia. What an awful thing to overcome. <3

    Reply
  10. From one cripple to another, great story. We need way more of those to overcome the disability-as-tragedy narrative that contaminates modern societies.

    Reply
  11. Having slowly declined to being a cripple, I don’t understand the “differently abled/handi-capable”. While the R-word isn’t used anymore because we have learned so much more about how the brain works, “cripple” pretty much calls it what it is when you can’t walk or there is difficulty walking. I joke with my friends all the time that it’s great knowing a cripple because we get all the best parking spaces. They will tell you what to call them.

    Reply

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