Where It All Leads

By Mark E. Smith

With my 40th birthday here, I wished to note it with an act emblematic of the life I’ve lived – overcoming some personal challenge, and hoping to meet others and grow in the process.

Friends suggested skydiving, which is strikingly cliché, and actually void of any real risk. When it comes to tandem skydiving, your odds of dying I learned are 0.4 out of 100,000, whereas my riding my power wheelchair to work each day has my risk of dying many times higher, 2.5 out of every 100,000. Therefore, while most unknowingly see skydiving as a brave, risky feat, it’s actually a totally controlled, unrisky feat, far safer than simply crossing a street.

No, for my 40th birthday, I want real adventure, real risk on my own terms, so I’ve bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas, heading out by myself, cross country, to see where it all leads.

The first part of my journey is getting to Vegas. We’re in an odd time of post-ADA corporate disability rebellion it seems, where airlines, in particular, have been proving alarmingly disability-phobic. Over the past two years, we’ve heard discouraging stories of airlines refusing to fly single disabled passengers. In fact, two days before this writing, a young woman with muscular dystrophy, who uses a ventilator, was by all accounts illegally denied boarding a Delta flight home.

I fly often on business, but with colleagues, so this will be my first solo trip in quite some time (I always flew alone years ago based on necessity, never having an issue, but this recent trend toward disability discrimination by airlines has me curious as to my forthcoming solo flights). I know CFR 14, Part 382 that outlines federal guidelines for how airlines must treat passengers with disabilities, but gate agents, in their ignorance, don’t seem to follow federal regulations or acknowledge basic human dignity these days, so I’m curious to see what it’s like for a guy as severely disabled as me to fly alone during these times. Again, it’s easy for any of us to say it’s a piece of cake to fly with a companion. An acquaintance of mine is always boasting to others how easy it is to fly with a disability; yet, his wife or a caregiver is always with him – man-up and go it alone, and see how you’re treated, is what I always want to tell him. Therefore, that’s what I’m doing – manning-up and leaning into it – seeing what it’s truly like to travel alone with a severe disability in 2011. Do I think I’ll get kicked off of a flight like Johnie Tuitel, the motivational speaker with cerebral palsy similar to mine who made national headlines by being unjustly removed from a flight? I hope not – namely, because I’m extremely familiar with federal airline regulations and my airline’s policy, where I trust that I can cordially talk my way through any situation. However, I am curious to see what, if any, ignorance I encounter.

Of course, logistically, a lot else could go wrong during the trip. What if I get stranded at an airport based on weather? What if my power wheelchair gets damaged or breaks? What if any number of scenarios go wrong? Again, I fly all over the country with colleagues and there are no worries on such trips. But, now I’m a 40-year-old with severe cerebral palsy flying to Vegas alone – that’s an adventure, one where I’m placing myself in my sole confidence to get by no matter what.

Once I’m in Vegas, I’m pursuing an interesting tact – as a person first, and as a writer second. I’m meeting up with a lifelong friend, and the goal isn’t to know Vegas, but to get to know the people of Vegas, seeing where it all leads. We’ve both been to Vegas countless times – mostly on business – and the uniqueness of Vegas is that everyone is from somewhere else, all with an often amazing story – from the inspiring to the tragic. I’ve spent the last 22 years telling my story, and I want to hear others’ stories on a diverse, candid scale, the types of conversations you’ll typically only find in Vegas. Drinking, gambling, and strippers, don’t interest me – been there, done that, didn’t impress me. I want to know about the waitress working at the Denny’s on the Vegas Strip at 1:00am – what’s her story, what brought her to this point in her life?

The fact is, at 40, there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about me or my story – I’ve merely lived life potentials that everyone possesses – and I’m eager to hear how others have accessed their potential, or struggled to do so. I have no idea who we’ll meet, or where conversations will lead, but I hope realizations by all will be made in the process, that a common humanity runs among us regardless of who we are, where we come from, or the lives we live.

I’m getting on a plane headed for Vegas. Where it will lead is the mystery that is sure to create the adventure.