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Saturday, July 31, 2010

RIP John Callahan

As many readers will already know John Callahan the controversial quadriplegic alcoholic cartoonist died a few days ago--precisely two days before the 20th anniversary of the ADA. I had hoped he would draw a typically ironic if not nasty cartoon to commemorate the ADA. Perhaps because of my surgery I am crankier than usual but I must say I tired of hearing about all the great things the ADA has done for people with disabilities. Yes, the ADA is helpful, a fact pointed out by numerous mainstream news media outlets. However, no mainstream media resource really delved deeply into the ADA and how it has affected the daily life of people with a disability. Given this, I find the death of Callahan to be of particular interest. Calllahan, like me, was a bad cripple for much of his life. We were both paralyzed in the 1970s, Callahan in 1972, me in 1978--well before the ADA was ever dreamed of. We both got first class rehabilitation--he went to Ranchos Los Amigos Hospital, 15 miles from Downey, CA. I went to rehabilitation at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. These were vibrant days in the history of modern rehabilitation. No established procedures existed, therapists were making things up daily to enhance the lives of people with SCI. These were exciting times. Callahan and I coped by working to the point of exhaustion--fear will do that to a person--and drinking very hard and often. Where we departed was in career choices--I went into academics and Calllahan became a famous cartoonist. I loved and hated his cartoons. They were brutally honest, hysterically funny, twisted, and in some cases just plan sick. His first cartoon/poem was penned while he was at Ranchos Los Amigos. It depicted a quadriplegic writing "Quadriplegia, rose are red and begonias are thick, I can feel my hands, but I can't feel my dick".

Callahan's death inspired me to read his wonderful autobiography, Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot written in 1989. I have read this book many times. Our experiences were very similar and our shared anger deeply felt. None of our anger was based on the fact neither of us could walk. Our anger was based on the gross social inequities that existed then and now. In rereading Callahan's book I was struck by how much rehabilitation has changed for paralyzed people. Back in the 1970s rehabilitation typically lasted many months. Callahan was in rehab for six months. He attended Portland State University under the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. He struggled mightily with alcohol abuse and eventually straightened out his life through AA. What struck me in reading about Callahan's rehabilitation in the 1970s was its duration and free flow of ideas and solutions. No protocols had been established. What has not changed however is the cost of paralysis. Back then Callahan's primitive electric wheelchair cost $5,000, a hospital bed another $5,000, wheelchair repair costs $200 every few months, medication, $200 a month and persona care attendants another $800 a month. He estimated it cost $1,475 a month to be a quadriplegic. That left him a grand total of $75 a month to live on. He wrote that "I would sit at the kitchen table and try to decide what combination of rice, beans, ramen noodles, potatoes, and day old bread would last the longest and cause the least damage to my system".

Has the ADA helped the newly paralyzed? In a word, no. The average length of stay in a rehabilitation hospital for paralyzed person is 44 days. Yes, 44 days! That is woefully inadequate to learn how to cope with paralysis physically and mentally. We can thank the insurance industry for this. The average first year expense associated with being a paraplegic is $198,000. The average first year expense associated with being a quadriplegic is $417,000. The life time health care costs associated with being a paraplegic who is injured at 25 years old is $428,000. The life time costs associated with being a quadriplegic who is injured at 25 years old is $1.38 million dollars. These are 2010 averages. Half of the people who experience a spinal cord injury are insured. I don't think the ADA has done one whit of good for these people. The ADA sure has not helped me financially as my paralysis represents significant financial drain. Combine this with the glacial pace of social change as it pertains to attitudes toward disability in general and it is no wonder the vast majority of people with a disability are unemployed. This is what I rail against and it what Callahan's cartoons brilliantly amplified. Thus he noted in 1992 NY Times Magazine story that "Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That is what is truly detestable". These words just don't resonant but are still relevant in 2010. This is where the ADA has failed miserably.

1 comment:

strangecripple said...

I'm gonna go ahead and admit that my absence from the disability blogging world has been a huge mistake. I am saddened to read this post so many month later about the death of John Callahan...and even more saddened by the fact that I was not around to suitable memorialize him. RIP John. A great artist, and a great bad cripple.