Conservative columnist and icon Charles Krauthammer passed away last week after a lengthy fight with cancer. To many people such as myself, Krauthammer was a brilliant observer of the otherwise obvious, with a special skill at analyzing life and disseminating it in a clear and entertaining manner. For many of us, his death will be a loss deeply felt.
However, for our industry, he was much more than a talking head with a long resume of opinion pieces. He was for us a wonderful example of a life lived abled, rising above and around a severe impairment suffered early in life.
Krauthammer was 21 and a medical student when he hit his head on the bottom of a pool in a dive gone terribly wrong. With a glancing blow at “just the right angle,” he severed his spine and became an incomplete quadriplegic. Despite this horrific injury, he completed his studies, earning a PhD in Psychiatry. Discovering that psychiatry really was not for him, he eventually, through both tenacity and fortunate circumstance, moved into a career of editing and political speech writing, eventually becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning author and columnist.
And right up to the time of his death, many of his fans never even realized he was in a wheelchair. We witnessed this firsthand when he spoke at NCCI AIS a few years back. As he rolled out onto the stage upon his introduction, the person sitting next to me expressed surprise, saying “He is in a wheelchair?” They had no idea.
That is because Krauthammer made a life living beyond his physical limitations. He was who he was despite his physical impairment, not because of it. His condition certainly represented challenges to his daily existence, but it did not define him as a person. It was, as far as his career was concerned, a non-factor.
Our industry still has a long way to go when it comes to not creating disability out of impairment. We are simply not structured today from either a legal or cultural perspective to do so. We do not define ability percentages, rather that distinction is held for disability ratings. We do not generally focus on rehabilitation and re-training, but instead concentrate on limitations and restrictions. We do not speak of what people can still do, but largely focus on that which they are perceived to be no longer capable.
People like Charles Krauthammer are a shining example of why life and career do not have to end with a serious injury. The ingredients for such success are faith in oneself and the tenacity to overcome. While it is true that these tenets must absolutely come from within the injured individual, our industry must figure out how to identify those strengths and draw them out. With encouragement and support, we can find and create our own Charles Krauthammers; people who develop the ability to rise above and move beyond. People who learn how to live abled, and as a result can continue to truly live.