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From the slopes to life in a wheelchair

James Dooley Sullivan's picture

Last December, James Dooley Sullivan packed his wheelchair and travelled to Jamaica. The Caribbean nation is a tourist destination, but the trip wasn’t a vacation. Sullivan, an animator and visual arts video editor at the World Bank Group, wanted to see first-hand what it’s like to be disabled in a developing country. He shares his experience and his own history in a video and a series of blog posts.

© Laura Fravel

Life in a wheelchair is pretty straight forward – it just requires a different set of verbs. Each morning I transfer into my chair, roll into the bathroom, and flip onto the toilet. I transfer back into my chair and then wiggle into professional attire. I drink enough tea to become civil before descending on my house’s external lift to the sidewalk.

After I heave myself into my car, I must disassemble my chair one wheel at a time and heft each part onto the seat next to me. After parking, I reassemble my chair outside the car door and transfer back into it. Elevators lift me to the ninth floor of the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. and wide doors swing open to my office workstation, where I’ve been editing the most important video I’ve ever produced. A year ago, my colleagues selected me for a travel award and I chose to go to Jamaica to do a story about how disabled people like me manage their days in a country struggling to provide even basic services.

My actual journey has been much longer of course – involving countless doctors, rehabilitation, relearning basic skills, learning new skills on a computer and getting a job that I enjoy. Sixteen years ago, I was a student living in Italy for a semester abroad. On February 9, 2001, I ran off course on a snowboard and was rapidly decelerated by dense alpine trees. I landed face down in the snow and immediately could not move or feel my body. Not good.

As I lay there, I had flashes of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, thinking how he pursued a cure for a spinal cord injury. I remember being flipped over and put into a sled and guided down the slope to a helicopter. I remember the helicopter turning on and off, and the gentle bearded face of one of my rescuers just before blacking out.

My mom flew to Italy immediately and was by my side when I woke up, but I spent a week in and out of consciousness, hooked up to all sizes and kinds of tubes and beeping medical equipment. I was gingerly loaded into different machines to gather imagery of my broken spine. I was wheeled into a bright, clean, surgical theatre. ER nurses carefully inserted giant painful needles that would knock me out. Pins were put into my left leg to let the bones heal, and a titanium plate screwed crushed vertebrae back into alignment.

When I got injured I had been studying Italian for only five months. In the hospital, I became fluent. But not grasping every detail of the discussions around my bed was a massive blessing in disguise. I was never told I was paralyzed until I eventually asked my doctors. By then I had time to adjust. If I had been injured in the United States, I would have been told immediately. Delaying this hard fact-of-life gave me the mental space to start adapting to the new world I was entering.

© Laura Fravel

As the news sank in deeper, I ended up having a good cry with my mom. Days later, I was sitting up in a clunky stainless-steel hospital wheelchair, and needed to blow my nose. Without thinking about it, I pushed myself, with great effort, around my bed to grab a tissue. I did it all by myself.

Being dependent on other people to wipe your nose, feed you, and help you get to the bathroom creates a sense of helplessness that can grow into something unhealthy. Once I realized I would not be walking again, I did not want to waste any time trying to walk again. I skipped ahead to wanting to be able to support myself and lead a normal life, but on four wheels. Americans, myself included, take our independence very seriously. It’s tied to our history and our social norms. I have been able to achieve independence because I live in a country that provides support to the disabled and because I’m surrounded by the love of my family, friends, and colleagues.

Back in America, I was admitted to a rehab center and slowly regained strength. I learned how to do everything from a seated position. Because of the nature of my injury, I cannot control my stomach muscles and, while I can push a manual wheelchair, I end up doing many things one handed, as my other arm is being used to keep my body upright.

© Laura Fravel

The reality of this hit me hard my second night home, when I couldn’t get into bed and toppled to the floor, completely helpless. As I tried and failed to lift myself off the ground, I started to cry. Desperate to raise an alarm, I scooted over to my stereo and cranked up the volume until my parents sleepily stumbled into my room and helped lift me back into bed, where I lay sobbing. The next day we rearranged my room and got blocks that would give me a lever to pull myself up should I fall. Sixteen years later, I am actually strong enough to get off of the floor on my own, but I still have the boxes under my bed because that trauma from the first week at home still lives with me.

My other lesson during those first weeks at home is that my body does not tolerate the brutal heat of a Washington D.C. summer. The nerves in my spine no longer send signals that trigger sweat. Every time I see a dog panting in the summer heat I nod my head in sympathy. I was readmitted for the fall semester at Georgetown University with a full course load and moved with my two roommates to a wheelchair-friendly apartment on campus. Hosting parties, cooking meals together, and all that comes with campus life helped to keep things interesting and prevented me from focussing on my crappy body.

I am inherently a glass-half-full kind of guy but, looking back, it is clear to me I was in fact depressed, eating far too many Chinese dumplings, and quite uncertain what I was going to do after school was over. Hospitals and colleges are great places to begin to heal because they provide structure. Being truly free of any schedule, without a job or income, was a recurring nightmare.

Fortunately, I had been editing videos prior to my injury and sitting in front of a computer is something I can do while sitting down. After graduation I got an internship at a local video post-production house blocks from my home where experts graciously shared their knowledge with me and taught me new skills. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed decades before I was paralyzed. My office had a long ramp that enabled me to easily enter the building. I was seen as a normal intern and was in no way treated differently because I worked from a wheelchair.

My nightmare never came true. I had not only found a career and a way to support myself, but I didn’t encounter the physical obstacles and social stigma I had feared.

And that’s why I chose to travel to Jamaica. It’s a World Bank Group member country that passed its own version of disability legislation in 2014. But since the law is still brand new, Jamaica illustrates the hardships and obstacles faced every day by people in wheelchairs, as well as citizens who are blind, deaf or otherwise impaired.

Working for the World Bank, I strive to help raise the bar for disabled people living in poorer countries around the world. They deserve the same opportunities as I’ve been afforded and to be treated with the same dignity and respect I earn every day.

But maybe more importantly, they also deserve to live with the same hope and sense of purpose that I was given. I don’t look at a barrier and say, “Oh, I can’t do that because of my chair.” I can almost always find a work around. That’s my mindset and I have it because I live in a community that encourages my efforts. Being disabled is not only a physical battle. It’s a psychological battle. And I want to show the world that we all can be productive, enabled and proud – if given a chance.

So with that in mind, I packed up my camera gear and boarded an Air Jamaica flight to a neighboring country, that’s another world.

Read Part two | Part three


Submitted by Nico on

"That’s another world" and hopefully another blog post as beautiful, powerful and inspirational as this one!

Submitted by Chuck Heidel on

Appreciated this post and identify / empathize very closely.

Chuck Heidel,

I checked out your blog and thank you for commenting on my first post. I too have a very supportive family. We don't always agree but I think that is what makes for a good one. 


Submitted by Jane Collins on

Wow, James. I read about some details I didn't know about before. Very well written and great photos too.

Submitted by James on

Thank you!

Submitted by Nancy Downer on

Thanks for sharing-your story will do more than illuminate and create understanding; it will allow other people with disabilities to see the possibilities for creating a life after injury. So proud of you always, James-just beautiful, beautiful honest, open writing.Not easy to do. But of course you excel at the difficult and inspire us all.

Submitted by James on


Thank you for the kind words and for commenting. I hope people on both sides can learn something each other. That way we can all move together to create that change that still needs to happen for so many people around the world.

Submitted by Dipti Mehta on

Hey dear James..incredibly inspirational..yr creativity is beyond are right surroundings also does matter..
I wish to inform that for partially handicap persons, there is organisation called jaipur foot or jaipur leg which fit artificial legs. Some NGOs sponsor cost of such legs for poor patients.
Such treatment & artificial leg/legs have made some handicap people not only walk but even dance & run to some extents.
Good is proud of you & inspiring people like you with such positive courageous mindsets.

Submitted by James on


Thank you for commenting and for working to help get people back up walking. Fitting prosthetics is an art and requires constant attention. When I was in rehab I tried to use some braces to walk but as you can see I choose wheels instead.

Submitted by Karen Peffley on

Thank you James for sharing your story.
For anyone interested in including a disability perspective into your work at the Bank, I suggest:
- World Report on Disability (2011), of which it was my pleasure to be a contributor.

Submitted by James on


Thank you for the links and for chiming in! I read through that report when I was researching where to go and the information contained within is great. I think a lot of projects we do have a disability component, even though it might not be categorized as such.

Submitted by miriam on

James, thanks for sharing your candid life story, your journey. It's great that you think beyond yourself and made that purposeful trip to Jamaica.

Submitted by James on


Your welcome. Thank you for commenting and I hope you can check out part three when it is live.

Submitted by James on


I have a wonderful editor! Stick around for part three. Thank you for commenting!

Submitted by Dwi Atmaji on

Can't wait to read your experience in Jamaica. GBU James....

Submitted by James on


I can't wait to here your comment about it! Thank you.

Submitted by Mrs Omolara Akanji on

James! Iappreciate your courage and strength. I bless God for giving you victory to overcome the fear of becoming dependent. God bless more and may Be continue to be your helper. Wao! So inspiring. Molly

Submitted by James on

Mrs. Omolara Akangji,

I have a lot of people around me helping. Thank you for your comment.

Submitted by Ingrid Wooten on

James and Jane,
Thank you for this incredibly important report! I do hope the World Bank will publish it into all languages of its members.
Looking forward to your next blog!

Submitted by James on


We just added Chinese!

Submitted by Ophelia Yeung on

James, we knew you have many talents, and now we add "writer" to the list. :) Safe travels and look forward to reading about your adventure!!

Submitted by James on


Thank you for the kind words. I must however credit my wonderful editor who helped shape everything up before the world got to see it. Please keep reading and commenting if you have time. Part three should be up soon.

Submitted by Susan Clough on

Impressive determination anchored by your "glass half full" attitude, James. In case you can't "place" me, I grew up in Pasadena with your mom and your Aunt Jane as good friends. They came to Santa Fe a few years ago and together we hit the road.
Your writing seems from your heart and gut.
Looking forward to updates from Jamaica.

Submitted by James on


Thank you for the lovely comment. Part three should be up soon.

Submitted by Adaeze on

I come from a country where people that are disabled rarely amount to anything. It would really be nice to share your post with them. Thank you for the inspiration

Submitted by James on


Where are you from? I am glad that you can share this with your friends. Things take time to change and without the work of so many people before I was born, I would not be where I am today.

Submitted by Tom Burke on

Your recovery story and contribution to others is appreciated.

Submitted by James on


I appreciate you comment. I am still learning new stuff everyday. It only took me ten years to figure out how to get pants back on so there is that. You have to flip all the way over. Trying to stay up and work either side is worthless.

Submitted by Elaine Sullivan on

James. The blog is wonderful! Dick and I were really impressed with your video as well. Keep doing good work.

Submitted by James on


Thank you for reading my blog!

Submitted by Kathye on

I've known James since he was 11 years old. He was an remarkable kid and is a truly inspirational man.

Submitted by James on


Who is going bald sadly.

Submitted by Andrew Shemson on

It seems James D Sullivan is the one I'm supposed to meet and learn some more opportunities for my breakthrough. As the one got an accident like him and a video editor like him using my left hand, I'm happy to read the story of his life after accident. Thank you too Mr Sullivan. You are not only one having problems like yours, but since April 4th 2004 I'm living the same life. No insurance, no assistance from anyone but still fighting for my own life and being a Director for non profit organization, Karama Yangu Foundation registered in Tanzania. May World Bank assist you to visit us in Tanzania and create some ideas to create jobs and projects to assist the needy.

Submitted by James on

Mr. Andrew Shemson,

It is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for commenting and sharing. Out of professional curiosity what software do you use?

Submitted by Celine Osukwu on

Thank you for inspirational writing. I pray other countries of the world adopt acts / bills that ensure full integration of persons with disabilities in societies.

Submitted by James on


I am glad you enjoyed the blog. It may take some time but I believe we will get there.

Submitted by Brigitte on

I am so touched by your story. How I wish things were different in other countries especially when I go home (Mauritius). How blessed are we to be in America at times.
Thanks for sharing.

Submitted by Timothy Steinbrink on

I love Jamaica, I have been there twice. What a great piece you did. The Jamaican people did everything they could to make my stay as a person in a wheelchair the best they could. And I got to say they were great.

Submitted by Sis on

Thanks for sharing your story.
Very nice looking guy, I like your attitude toward what has happened.
Keep going and keep looking for the best out of this situation.

Submitted by Gabbbie on

Hey James, great series! I'm working on research looking at PWD in Jamaica and was wondering how to get in touch with Patrick.

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