Flicking The What-If? Switch


By Mark E. Smith

It’s official – I’m now certified to operate a boat in the state of Pennsylvania and federal waters. Yes, with my boater’s certification, I can even legally dump all of my trash, except for plastic, in the Atlantic Ocean as long as I’m 25 miles offshore, and I don’t have to report a man overboard for 48 hours – how cool are those perks?

It turns out that Pennsylvania recently made getting your boater’s “license” much more stringent, complete with what they claim is three hours of course study (but actually takes six), where you must pass seven chapter quizzes and a final exam – I supposed it’s designed to prevent guys like me from operating boats.

But, I passed!

Now, you may be wondering why would a severely-disabled guy like me get a boater’s license? To operate a boat, of course! Actually, the only real hobby that I ever had was boating, where I owned two boats in California years ago. But, it was a different place and time to where I’ve been the last decade or so.

In California, I lived a stone’s throw from a marina and the San Francisco Bay, and I had a great support system of friends who were also into boating, gladly helping me pursue my passion, physically assisting me however needed, from launching my boat, to transferring me aboard, to helping me maintain it. And, I was great at the helm. Whereas cars require fine motor skills, boats are far more forgiving – and, completely hand-controlled – where I could maneuver my boat as well as anyone, from docking to running miles offshore in demanding seas. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be at the helm at 5:00am on a Saturday morning, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, heading 10 miles out in the Pacific for a day of trolling for salmon. Sure, the Coast Guard looked a little perplexed by my awkward body movements and slurred speech the few times that they pulled along side me for routine safety checks, but the minute that I explained, “I have cerebral palsy – oh, and I’ve been drinking heavily,” they understood just fine.

In the late 1990s, needing to concentrate on my newborn daughter and career, I sold my last boat. They say that the two best days of owning a boat are the day that you buy it, and the day that you sell it – namely because boats require a lot of time and financial responsibility. But, for me, I’ve definitely missed my boats. However, in living life in Pennsylvania, occupied with work and family, I’ve found a million reasons why I could no longer pursue my passion for boats: I’m too busy with work; I don’t live near a major body of water; I can’t tow a boat with my accessible van; I don’t have room at my home to store a boat; I can’t launch a boat or imagine how I’d even get aboard a boat without two strong guys helping me; and, my daughter’s college fund has rightfully been far more important than putting money into a boat.

And, all of those are absolutely realistic reasons as to why someone as severely disabled as me, at my point in life, can no longer pursue a passion like boating. Sometimes we must accept life’s changes and move forward without regrets.

But, not always. See, a lot of times it’s not the seeming physical realities of our disabilities or lives that limit us, but our own narrow thinking. And, so, I got to really thinking about boats again over the past year, wondering, Is it truly impossible for me to ever own and operate a boat again, or am I boxing myself in, preventing pursuing among my foremost lifelong passions due to narrow thinking? More bluntly, was I letting my perception of my disability keep me from living to my fullest? In fact, from time to time, I said to my family the dreaded only-if statement: Only-if it wasn’t for my situation – if only I didn’t have cerebral palsy – I’d have another boat in a heartbeat….

Such only-if thinking never works, though, and I know that whenever in life I’ve found myself going into only-if mode, I’ve needed to turn my bow into the wind, and start thinking what-ifs?, steering myself toward a more positive horizon.

To turn my boating only-ifs into what-ifs?, I made a list of what I literally couldn’t do when it came to boating, then I tried to come up with a creative what-if? question for each problem, seeing if the thought process might lead me to solutions:

I don’t live near coastal waters, but what-if there’s a terrific lake in my area for boating that I’ve overlooked?

I can’t trailer, launch, or store a boat; but, what-if it was permanently birthed somewhere, in the water, ready to go, at a wheelchair-accessible dock?

I can’t climb aboard a boat, but what-if there’s a style of boat that I could somehow transfer onto myself?

Boats are expensive, but what-if there are the less-costly alternatives?

So, I spent the winter working through the possible what-if? answers, limited not by my physical disability, but by only focusing on creative solutions. And, where the answers led me was surprising.

It turns out that there’s a beautiful lake, with 52 miles of shoreline, only 40 minutes from my house. On the lake are full-service marinas, where for a very reasonable annual rate, you get your own boat slip, where they launch your boat in the spring, take it out in the fall, store it on land during the winter, and offer full marine service in-between – and, some of the docks are even wheelchair-accessible. During boating season, May through October, I could roll from my van, right to a boat, and never have to worry about towing, launching, storage, or service.

As for what type of boat that I could physically access, I found that many pontoon boat models actually take wheelchair-accessibility into consideration, where their totally flat decks, wide boarding gates, and accessible aisles allow one using a wheelchair to roll on board, and transfer into the helm seat. And, while pontoon boats offer the performance needed for family fun of water skiing and tubing, they’re notably less expensive than comparably-sized conventional runabouts and cruisers.

Therefore, I went from seeing no possible way of ever boating again, to knowing that I could literally roll onto my own boat and hit the water on weekends with the family, all with just a little creative thinking and research – and a little hard-earned, long-saved cash, of course.

What’s amazed me in this process, though, isn’t so much that I figured out a way to once again to pursue my passion of boating. Rather, what’s amazed me in this process has been my realization that I once again discovered among the most valuable tools that we each have toward living with disability: The ability to change the outlooks in our lives from an assumption of can’t to a question of what-if?, merely by opening our minds to all possibilities: Can’t is an end, but what-if? creates a beginning. And, when we catch ourselves thinking can’t, we need to immediately switch to what-if?:

I can’t go to college – I have a severe disability, don’t drive, and have no money for tuition. What-if I find out about services for disabled students at the community college? What-if I sign up for paratransit transportation to campus? What-if I file for a tuition grant?

I can’t move out of my parents’ home – my disability makes it impossible. What-if I find out about accessible, subsidized housing? What-if I learn how to arrange attendant care? What-if I contact the independent living center in my area?

I can’t drive or afford an accessible van – that would be too difficult for someone like me with this disability. What-if I speak with an adaptive driving instructor and pursue an evaluation? What if I contact Vocational Rehabilitation to see if I might qualify for accessible van funding?

Indeed, what-if? questions create doors of opportunity in all areas of our lives, where rather than assuming a can’t outlook, asking ourselves what-if? questions changes the rules, unleashing our fullest potential. There’s no secret to it, as all great minds have historically asked what-if? questions – every invention, scientific breakthrough, human advancement, and personal revelation has come from asking ourselves what-if?

The next time that you feel limited in your situation – in any seemingly impossible situation! – begin simply asking yourself what-if? questions, seeing where they lead. You’ll be amazed by the astounding possibilities and opportunities that suddenly appear in your life.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

3 thoughts on “Flicking The What-If? Switch”

  1. Mark,
    Congrats on getting your license. Just don’t throw trash in the Atlantic.

    Great article! It has a message many people with disabilities should hear.

  2. Well said and well written. I have a boat and know they are very difficult to get around on even being able bodied. Living life fearlessly is the challenge we all face in this world and living life to its fullest is what we all want to accomplish. Good luck!

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