One of my favorite people in the world is Dale. I got to know him in 2002 over a game called The Sims Online. He described himself in his online bio as someone who disliked tattoos and bad grammar, so he sounded interesting. I struck up a conversation which developed into one of the most unlikely yet fulfilling relationships of my life. I mentioned Dale in a previous article, “Patience is a Virtue…Or Is It?”
Dale was born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), which either caused or was caused by his premature birth. When he was born he only weighed two and a half pounds. CP is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, and the extent of the disability depends on when and where damage occurs and how long it lasts. Sometimes the mental faculties are impaired, but in Dale’s case, it is a physical disability which seems to worsen in his extremities. Dale says one more minute with or without oxygen, and his situation could have been very different.
Dale can walk with the aid of canes, but he has used a wheelchair most of his life. When he was a kid he used to walk almost three miles to the country club from his house, which took about an hour each way, but now that prospect is daunting, and he opts to use his canes only for short distances. He keeps a wheelchair in his car and another in his house. As he ages and gets less flexible, he adapts his environment to his evolving capabilities, rather than the other way around. He also works out and has a personal trainer who tailors his workouts to optimize his flexibility and balance. With her help, he can stand unaided for almost a minute, which sounds easy, but for him it is quite a feat.
Dale has always worked for himself. He got a Bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems and started his own business fixing people’s computers. His timing was perfect: computers were at their genesis and became available in schools when he was in the eighth grade, so he joined the computer club and was allowed to stay after school to learn about them. Back then, there wasn’t much software available, so if a person wanted to play a game, he had to first write the code for the computer himself before he could play the game he had written. Early programmers had to teach themselves, since there were no such things as tutorials. He forged an early relationship with computers that has served him well for the last forty years. Now, not only does he network, service, and maintain almost fifty computers in his family’s business, but he also services, consults about, or installs software on at least five of his eighty clients’ computers every week. He also helps tutor his clients on new applications for their phones. He owns both an Android and an iPhone for this purpose.
Dale is completely self-sufficient. He receives no government disability check or financial aid whatsoever. He owns his own home and drives a car with hand controls. When he travels, he rents a scooter to get around, but he doesn’t expect any special favors. He views his disability not as a handicap, but as a way of life. He knows his limitations and accommodates for himself. For instance, he knows he needs a hotel room with a roll-in shower and good, solid hard-back chairs. He knows it may take up to two hours to get dressed if he doesn’t have a flat place to sit so he can reach his shoes.
Dale takes a long time to get anywhere. He moves at what he calls “Dale speed.” He moves so slowly across his office floor that the lights go off, and he has to wave his canes around to trigger the sensor to turn them back on. He is always the first on and last off a plane, so travel takes much longer, especially through security checkpoints. People who know him set their clocks to DST, or “Dale Standard Time,” which is typically fifteen to twenty minutes late. It takes him twice as long to get places in Las Vegas because the hotels have stairs, escalators, and moving walkways in the front, but elevators and the monorail entrance in the back, sometimes at opposite ends of the complex from one floor to the next. Instead of expecting special treatment, though, he just builds in extra time for travel and does what it takes to get where he needs to go.
That’s his philosophy, really. If he wants something, he does what it takes to get it. He laughs, “If you want me to do something, all you have to say is, ‘You can’t do that.’ It may have to be done differently or take longer, but it will get done.” Occasionally he climbs to the top of the stairs at his family’s business with his canes around his neck, only to drop one, watching it slide clear to the bottom. Already sweating, he turns himself around, grabs the railings again, and goes after the lost cane, climbing all the way back up to the top after retrieving it. He doesn’t bother with the gym on those days.
He’s not without a sense of humor, either. One time I was in a store with him, helping him try on some shoes. After handing him his canes so he could stand up and try them out, we heard a Michael Jackson song on the overhead speakers, so Dale started to dance, wiggling his butt and moving his canes back and forth. A guy passing behind him thought he was falling and assumed a baseball-catcher stance, and we burst out laughing. The guy was not amused.
I spent two years getting to know Dale before I ever saw him, but he let me know about his CP right away and was very open about his capabilities. A disability is part of a person’s life, which is why the term “differently-abled” is more accurately descriptive than the word “handicapped.” Dale has never known life without CP, so when people ask him what it’s like to have it, he can’t answer the question, because he has no basis of comparison. He has never experienced what it’s like to be what he calls a “bi-ped.”
I met Dale in person in 2004 at my very first Consumer Electronics Show, where he had invited my husband and me to join him. It’s an annual convention in Las Vegas that boasts over seven million square feet of brand new electronics and about 175,000 attendees. It is one of the largest conventions in the world. Since each CES covers the latest in electronica, it is a mecca for technology geeks like Dale and me. He uses a scooter to get around, but I average about a ten mile walk on each of the four days of the convention. There is so much cool stuff there than no one has time to see it all. It is hard to negotiate around all those people, even though most of them are very considerate. We never know what new invention might make Dale’s life easier, and he’s constantly on the lookout for innovation. He was asked to pilot some prototype robots that can help carry his belongings and follow him around at a pre-programmed distance, so that should be fun.
Dale doesn’t need any help, but he sure appreciates it when it is offered. He says it’s much more comfortable for him to accept unneeded help than it is to be ignored or stared at. I think that’s something we should all think about when approaching a person with a disability. Go up and say hello, ask if you can hold the door, or carry something, or help them if they appear to need it. It’s much more respectful to offer help than to pretend the person doesn’t need it.
I admire Dale, not because he overcomes his disability, but because it is a part of him. Spending time with him means doing things differently, but for me, it’s refreshing. With my normal schedule I rush around all the time, so moving at Dale speed is a nice change. I don’t know what this next year will bring, but spending time with Dale will further cement our friendship and make me have a deeper patience and respect for what he does on a daily basis. Even if he is twice as slow as everyone else.