By Dave Hingsburger
Hello?” His voice is full of sleep as he answers the telephone. I can hear Beth, his wife, getting out of bed in the background. Farther in the distance a small child can be heard. We agree, fairly quickly, that it’s about a cup of coffee too early to chat. We’ll talk in an hour or so.
While I wait, I think back to when I first met Dan Wilkins at a TASH conference in New Orleans. He’d rolled by our book table, noticed a masturbation training tape, and hit his brakes. I remember the first words out of his mouth: “Well, this looks handy!” And we all laughed.
Later I followed him back to his booth and there were what seemed like a thousand T-shirts with cool messages and graphics piled everywhere. Busy working there were Beth and Patt, his mom. Both rolled their eyes when he claimed he’d been out networking while they’d been sweatworking. The love, the camaraderie, the teasing that went on around that table drew people there like bees to honey.
An hour later we’re on the phone again. A child’s voice is in the background, and occasionally Beth makes quips while Dan and I are talking. The clatter of a normal life is something Dan once thought he had lost.
“Before my accident,” he says, “I was the societal norm. I had no friends with disabilities and had one of those fate-worse-than-death attitudes towards the very idea of disability. Even so, from day one of waking up with a disability I was laughing. I can’t say there weren’t times I was worried. I remember wondering if I’d ever love or be loved again. I never thought I’d live in my own home, have my own business. …” There is a long pause and then, with the softest voice possible, he adds, “Never thought I’d have such a beautiful little boy.”
Dan’s life changed–although the way he tells it, his life began anew–on a crisp October night. He worked nights and instead of going to bed afterward he decided to do some carpentry for a friend. Then he went to a football game and later to a bar to shoot some pool with friends. Exhausted, he fell asleep behind the wheel of his Camaro, went through a stop sign and was hit on the passenger side. The car flipped three times and landed in a cornfield. When Dan came to, he was hanging out of the car with his legs twisted in the gearshift and one arm pinned under the car. “I was in it, out of it, under it,” he says. “I knew the fact I couldn’t feel from my neck down wasn’t good. I said to myself, ‘Oh Dan, what have you done this time?'” He remembers little of being rescued and airlifted to the hospital.
“I remember vignettes like waking up and realizing my sister was sitting next to me cleaning glass out of my teeth,” he says. “I remember hearing the air conditioning.” Dan tells his story in images, and the strongest of these are the people he met, starting that first day, and of the gifts they gave him. “I remember coming to and seeing this blond woman rubbing my feet. She was nine months pregnant, and we started talking. She said to me, ‘Do you read Penthouse Forum? Well you have to forgive me, I have a foot fetish.’ I thought to myself, ‘Maybe life isn’t going to be so bad.'”
How did he feel about all the help he needed? Then or now? “Dependency is a seductress,” he says, “because it’s so easy having someone come in and brush your teeth. At first you hate it. These are private things you want to do yourself, but then you look forward to people doing things for you. It’s interesting having someone wash your genitals. …”
There is a commotion at the other end of the phone line. “Well, you still like that!” says Beth. Part of Dan’s humor, I think, is just another way to get laid.
An Enlightened Laugh
From the get-go Dan understood that humor was more than just a coping mechanism. It was radical. It had the power to upset, disarm, inform. One early example was the day he made a doctor furious. That’s when he discovered how humor could deflate the pompous.
“That doctor took my disability more seriously than I did,” Dan recalls. “He saw me as broken and unfixable. Well, I never saw myself as broken. From the moment that doctor became angry, I understood that when I make light of my disability it makes people reevaluate what they think. Some people don’t like that kind of challenge. My passion became to make people laugh. But not just laugh–I guess I want them to laugh an enlightened laugh.”
Dan retells his first day in rehab: “I came from 12 weeks in a sterile environment, where it took five people to gently turn me over, into rehab. My family was with me, and they put me in a room and pulled a curtain around me. In comes this nurse with big ol’ blond bouncy hair, angora sweater, large breasts, no bra. She says, ‘Hi, I’m Sandy, I’m Dan’s primary nurse. Let’s get Dan into bed.’ I was 23 years old then, and I remembering thinking ‘Man, I’ve died and gone to heaven.’ She grabs the sheet and slides me into bed. I’m now three feet east of where I was just a moment before. I do a quick stimulus check and see I’m OK. Rehab lesson number one: It only takes one person to get my fat ass into bed.”
Dan’s next surprise in rehab was his primary physician. “He walked in, this big guy wearing a flannel shirt, Birkenstocks and red socks. He had a big beard and the only thing that showed he was a doctor was a stethoscope. He shooed my family out of the room and we had a great conversation. He said, ‘We aren’t going to waste time. We aren’t going to dwell on what was; that’s past, that’s history. We move forward from here.'”
Dan pauses in his story now. And as he does, I remember a dinner when several of us gathered in a restaurant in Boston. We were surrounded by cops out having a Christmas party. Even though Dan didn’t say anything, I could tell he noticed all the sidelong glances from the boys in blue. Like a practiced politician, Dan kicked the conversation up a notch and soon we were all engulfed by gales of laughter. Glances of pity became outright stares of envy. We, the ones sitting with the cripple, were having a better time than they were. Something was wrong here. The politics of the room had changed. “This guy doesn’t miss a trick!” I thought to myself. And Dan smiled, thinking we hadn’t noticed that we’d become part of his object lesson.
Carol Burnett once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Dan hadn’t told me, so I had to ask: There must have been a bad time. A down time. A time of loneliness and isolation?
There was. Dan sat around for a couple of years. “I had chosen isolation,” he says. “Like a lot of newly disabled folks, out of necessity, I moved back to the farm with my mom and dad. I wasn’t ready for people to see me as what I was because I didn’t know yet who I was. It took me two years to rediscover myself. I finally got kicked in the butt by a friend who couldn’t stand that I was caught in an ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’ way of thinking. She pushed me and I ended up going to college and getting a degree. I majored in psych and minored in art. During that interim I made lots of new friends and solidified my relationships with the old friends I had left after the injury.”
Though he moves quickly from isolation to inclusion, you can tell that Dan isn’t avoiding the topic. But he does want to avoid being part of another gimp-overcomes-obstacles story. Underneath the smile, I realize, is conviction. Beneath the velvet glove of humor is a fist raised in determination. Inside the glint in the eye is the steel-hard gaze of a realist. His charm and wit are the camouflage he wears in his very personal war against prejudice.
Part of the Solution
Along the way Dan discovered something interesting about having a disability–something that no one had told him and many don’t yet understand. When he returned to birding, for example, he met someone who enlisted his aid in making a park accessible. He discovered that he didn’t lose himself when he got a disability; instead he gained a perspective. Similarly, when working at the Ability Center, he had a life-changing experience helping a woman with cerebral go skydiving … but you’ll have to go somewhere Dan is speaking to hear that story. As that woman’s jubilant scream as she fell from the sky taught him, it’s possible to leap and still make a soft landing on earth.
A big leap for Dan was meeting Ed Roberts, often called “the father of independent living.” His time with Ed, drinking homemade beer and talking, was a defining moment. “He helped me see my life direction as an advocate and a speaker,” Dan says. “He watered a seed in me that I hadn’t seen before. For every advocate there is a serendipitous moment when suddenly you realize you aren’t alone. You become aware that you have a culture, a community that embraces you and says, ‘We validate you and we need you.’ At that point, you become part of the solution. There is a great responsibility–everything that comes out of your mouth or is said through your actions represents your culture.”
If you represent your culture, your mode of communication becomes all-important. “I began to think about T-shirts as a way of communicating,” Dan says. “I saw slogans in my mind like ‘Severely Normal’ or ‘Stairs: The Final Frontier’ or even ‘Your Attitude Just Might Be My Biggest Barrier,’ and thought they would make great T-shirts. I realized that we live our lives in sound bytes and if we can’t blurt out what we want to say, or if shyness silences us, then we can wear a message. We can get out the message that living with a disability is not a detriment or challenge but an asset and an adventure.”
There were practical matters. “I knew nothing of silkscreening, of making T-shirts,” Dan says. “I got someone to teach me the basics. I had decided that the first T-shirt would be, ‘Bureaucratically Impaired.’ I took 200 shirts to a conference and sold them from a box next to my chair. Phil Caulkins, with the President’s Council on Employment of People With Disabilities, saw my shirt and bought one. He was the keynote speaker at the conference and during his speech he said, ‘There’s this guy with a disability in the hallway selling these wonderful T-shirts. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit, you have to create your own opportunities. In an hour and a half I’d sold almost all the T-shirts. I wasn’t prepared for success. I had money sticking out of every pocket I had. I left there knowing that this is what I wanted to do.
“I sent out a catalogue of 50 shirts, none of which was printed,” Dan recalls. “I made the shirts as the orders came in. Suddenly, I was in business.”
You Are a Billboard
Several organizations helped Dan get started. He realized again the importance of networking and the value of support. The Parent Center in Colorado, for example, flew him out to their conference just so he could sell T-shirts. That spirit of generosity, of cooperation, of mutual support, Dan decided, would become a hallmark of his business, now called the Nth Degree. Exercising that philosophy, Dan works with organizations like ADAPT and Not Dead Yet. His speaking career is booming and while people may come for the humor, they leave a session led by Dan with a renewed sense
of vision, connection and–maybe–mission.
Even though Dan has crisis moments when the cash flow isn’t what it should be, he knows he’s in the right business doing the right thing. He is helping others, helping himself, keeping himself centered and focused. Dan, I have come to realize, is never far from that guy in the restaurant teaching the cops a lesson. His communication is only tangentially related to his disability; it arises more because of his heart. He wants to engage the world in a conversation. The T-shirts aren’t a business, but a way for Dan to talk to thousands of people. Our chests become his billboards; our contacts, his audience; our convictions, his microphone. And it works. For everyone.
Dan’s words–on a T-shirt, in a lecture or in conversation–are gentle, calm and radical. He speaks with grace, writes with heart and converses with full attention. One of Dan’s early T-shirts presents the Chinese character “Ting,” meaning to “to listen.” The character incorporates not only the ears but the eyes, the heart and undivided attention. It’s a graphic representation of the fact that to truly listen we need more than ears, we need our entire body and our entire mind. Dan has listened well to the “still small voice” inside himself. Through his great generosity, he allows others to hear the whisper.
Today, in a moment of candor, Dan reminds me that wit is as much a weapon as a tool. “Humor diffuses all the bombs and bullets that all the assholes sling at you.” That said, he has to get back to his life. The one he feared he’d lost, the one disability allowed him to find.
Dave Hingsburger (fat, fabulous and nearly 50) is a writer and lecturer on disability issues. His writing regularly appears in disability rights publications as well as in staid, dusty journals.
Hot off the Press
It’s not often that you can actually read a catalog. Usually, you look, you choose, you buy. But the new catalog from Dan Wilkins and The Nth Degree makes you think. You’ll probably still look, choose and buy because it’s full of great stuff–mostly lighthearted T-shirts with important messages.
“This catalog,” says Wilkins, “is about taking our disabilities seriously when our rights are violated and not so seriously the rest of the time.”
With charming and thoughtful commentary throughout, the catalog offers shirts on “normalcy,” empowerment, diversity, attitude, peace, inclusion, advocacy, living and humor. For each shirt, Wilkins explains the design’s origin, context or power. Next to the No Boundaries design, for instance, he notes: “It is difficult to buy into society’s dogma for you when you are so busy being yourself.”
Another shirt shows a toppled wheeler after a few drinks and says, “If found walking … please remind me that I’m paralyzed.” Wilkins says it’s a real icebreaker in bars: “Instant laughs. Instant solidarity.”
Some other favorites:
- Severely Normal
- Same struggle, different difference
- Piss on Pity
- Severely Euphemized
- Nothing about me without me
- Just trying to be the person my dog thinks I am.
There are dozens more, many with jokes that would be lost in translation here. Order your own catalog by calling 800/241-8468; fax: 419/837-2513; www.thenthdegree.com