By: Deborah Vance
His Mission: To Make People More Comfortable With Disability Virtually Invisible Wheelchairs Now You See Them… Now You Don’t
Optical illusions are images that we perceive differently than they really are. They occur when our eyes send information to our brains that tricks us into perceiving something that does not match reality. Changing our focus, the way we look at something, can produce an entirely different perception.
Perception, comprehension: things, people, situations. How we focus can also radically affect how we see them. Tom Hoatlin, 54, has a few thoughts on this. In fact, he is passionate about how we perceive and relate to what’s around us.
Tom uses a wheelchair. It is, and isn’t, a big part of his life. Aside from logistics, his wheels are simply a way to get around. Wehen he is referred to as a disabled person, Tom’s response is, “No, I am a person who has a disability.” Get the difference? What do you see first – his wheelchair or HIM? Tom wants us to change our perception… our focus.
Tom’s daughter got married in May. The wedding was on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. At the reception the guests gathered for food, drink and, eventually, dancing. At one point and on cue the crowd parted, a circle was formed and the music began to play. Tom and his daughter Laney held hands as they glided into place for “their” dance. There were hugs and tears as their family and friends applauded and celebrated with them. His wheelchair virtually disappeared in the midst of their love and support… it was all but invisible to the discerning eye.
Tom had been thinking of this moment for a long time… for 27 years, to be exact. As Laney worked on details for the big day, Tom began reading about wheelchair ballroom dancing. Aa special occasion by Dance Mobility at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio and sponsored by the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Foundation, caught his eye. He entered their essay contest and won.
Part of Tom’s background: In November of 1991 he was at work as general manager of a hotel in Livonia MI when (in his own words) –
at a suburban hotel in 1991 left me paralyzed from the chest down needing a wheelchair for mobility and experiencing a new vulnerability. Two years of marriage, a new baby girl, a first family Christmas in our starter home – basically a life rich with blessings – were all catastrophically interrupted. Two men, intentionally did evil things, including leaving me to die. What happened to me is what most people only experience in a nightmare. A policeman reported that I saved my own life by crawling beneath the customer service counter rather than laying open on the office floor as I was told to do by my assailants. One moment and my life was vastly different. In that moment there was extreme pain. My hand came away from my neck with a great gush of maroon blood. In the next hour I lost 12 units, nearly all I had in my body. I was revived by paramedics at the scene before being airlifted to the University of Michigan hospital. On Christmas Eve the doctors came into my room with their “wonderful” gift, telling me that I would never walk again. While my perpetrators went to prison for 35 years I felt I was in the prison of my chair for life. Excerpt from “Deep – Real Life with Spinal Cord Injury”
Tom was inspired by his late mother who suffered from M.S. She gently reminded him that he had two choices… be miserable or figure this thing out. Over time Tom did come to realize that no one is a prisoner of the chair. He re-focused and began his life again in a whole new reality. “We are not ‘wheelchair bound.’ We just aren’t. My life is about living.” Perhaps trite but true: life is about choice. At 28, Tom had to decide how he was going to navigate life in the face of overwhelming trauma and sadness. Two of his group of four best friends had died in the two years before Tom’s injury. A month after being shot, he developed a massive life-threatening pulmonary embolism at the physical therapy gym, and he coded. He had to be revived twice before his surgeon rushed to his side to crack open his chest and massage his heart. His family was told that he had a 10 per cent chance of surviving the embolectomy surgery. He was put on a heart/lung bypass machine (ECMO) for a week and then a ventilator in the ICU. He survived. One more reason to want to live on the plus side.
Tom was hired as Director of Development and Fundraising for the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Ann Arbor in 1995. While in that position he collaborated with the University of Michigan’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PMR) department to co-facilitate / co-teach independent living classes for patients with spinal cord injuries and their families. He became certified in Peer-Mentoring. In 2013 he left the CIL to work with a home healthcare company then decided to go back to doing contract work on his own, working with the University of Michigan and NuStep, a manufacturer of inclusive exercise equipment for cardiac rehabilitation and people with mobility impairments.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation sought him out in 2011 to become the Midwest Regional Coordinator for their Peer and Family Support program. In 2018 the CIL asked him to rejoin them as Director of Business and Benefactor Development.
He is a busy man. In addition to his work with CIL, the University of Michigan, NuStep, and his many speaking engagements, he has joined a small business start-up, Diligent Home Healthcare, which provides assistance to folks who need help at home. The idea behind the start-up was inspired by Tom’s own experience and frustration trying to find someone to assist him while at his cottage on the west coast of the state. Operating out of South Haven MI, Diligent Home Healthcare is designed to fill that gap by coordinating healthcare workers with those who need them.
Tom knows the thrill of having someone tell him that they hardly even see his wheelchair anymore. They relate to who HE is, and his exuberance about life.
His continuing passion in life is disability awareness and sensitivity training because he is intensely interested in how we perceive and relate to what’s around us. He wants us to learn how to re-focus our acuity relative to what appears to be a defining impairment. He wants to make wheelchairs disappear in our minds and the people who sit in them to emerge as the whole, healthy, individuals they are… people who happen to need a few tools to navigate their life journey.
Tom Hoatlin Center for Independent
Living (Ann Arbor)
To read more about “Deep –
Real Life with Spinal Cord Injury”: