Irv and the Big Blue Hippie Van

It was that time of year when the lazy days of summer are marked by the coming responsibilities of fall. I was entering my junior year at Oberlin College in Ohio during 1990, and while wary of the work to come, I looked forward to the frenetic energy that preceded my semesters there. Oberlin was, in a word, my oyster. There I had found my first real sense of belonging to a close-knit community, surrounded by friends that both challenged and supported me. A radical school still much influenced by the social movements of the sixties, my friends wore tie-dyed, unkempt clothes, listened to the Grateful Dead and smelled a curious mixture of patchouli, incense and B.O. Like me, most of these students considered Oberlin to be a place where they could escape the rampant conservatism that prevailed following the Reagan years. We held sit-ins and protests in the name of most all social causes, from divestment to need-blind admissions, from minority under representation to the corporatizing of academia. And we were absolutely sure that the world would bow to our egalitarian vision if only we could be loud enough.

Hindsight is, as the somewhat ableist saying goes, 20/20. Despite all our assuredness and bravado, we were an insecure lot, filled with the same questions about ourselves, about life and about love as the generations of college students who preceded us. And I was no exception. Just a few years before leaving highschool and coming to Oberlin, I had survived a car accident which left me paralyzed from the waist down. Put plainly, the accident itself was something right out of a horror show and the days in the hospital and rehabilitation were terrifying and painful. But I had youth on my side, the physical pain subsided and I quickly adapted to getting around in a wheelchair. At least in a general sense, I learned that my disability was not nearly as severe as it might have been, that I would still have a large degree of independence. But where my then 16 year old body was resilient, my then 16 year old mind was at a great disadvantage to make sense of the changes to come.

The first day I returned to high school, a teacher told me “well, at least you still have your mind.” I thought that a hell of a thing to say to me, because I was under the impression that I still had a body, too. But for all his interest in my mind, I quickly discovered that he and many of my other teachers really weren’t too concerned if I cut classes. Yet they were all very, very sorry for my family and me. I suppose I could understand that much. Yet, at the exact same time, my simple presence at school was called, time and again, an inspiration. How could it be that people felt sorry for someone who so inspired them? And if the adults were apparently confused about me, the kids at school were even more so. All my former enemies now wanted nothing but to be my best friends. A pimple-faced teen, I was inexplicably being asked out on dates, only to find out that they had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with sympathy. And the more people treated me in these ways, the more I would protest that I wasn’t a cripple, that I didn’t want them to think of me as handicapped, that I simply wanted to be treated as I was before. Yet the more adamant I became, the more my real friends started to distance themselves from me, no matter how much I needed them. By the time I graduated, I was sure of only one thing: the social rulebook had changed and nobody had provided me with a new one. I was a mess.

Oberlin was just the clean break I needed. If nothing else, all the people I began to meet there had never known me any way but in a wheelchair. And in a microcosm so concerned with social justice and so fervent in its stance against “isms” I stumbled upon an idea. It actually happened one day during a discussion of racism in a sociology class. Could there be such a thing as prejudice against people with disabilities? And weren’t there also examples of discrimination against such people in schools? And wasn’t it the case that only one dorm on the campus was wheelchair accessible, that the registrar’s office was in the basement of a building with 3 flights of stairs, that half of the classrooms weren’t accessible and that I couldn’t get to my own mailbox in the student union? Spurred on by my new hippie-radical friends, I reached a whole new conclusion about my situation in one day:

The problem wasn’t with me.

The problem was with society.

But again, hindsight is 20/20. While some of my new realizations would turn out to be accurate, I had not really allowed myself the chance to grieve what I had lost. On the one hand, I could blame myself as I did in high school, and spend all my energy trying to convince people that I was something I could no longer be: “normal.” On the other, I could blame society, and try to convince people that the very notion of “normal” is wrong. But either way, that was a lot of convincing of other people to do. I needed to be convinced. I took a semester off from school, went home and found a therapist. And while this would probably make for a better story if I told you that I had a huge catharsis, cried like a baby and was healed, it didn’t quite happen that way. I did shed some tears and I did explore the idea that I needed a new way of looking at myself. But I returned to Oberlin with many questions yet to be answered, and many feelings yet to be explored.

It was just about then that I met Irv. Upon my return to school, a group of students with disabilities had begun to assemble and meet regularly for dinner. Oh, and amongst them was an intelligent, disarming and beautiful woman in a wheelchair named Carol, but that’s another story… Anyhow, the group decided that it would help us all if we could hold an awareness day on campus. We would put up banners, sponsor speakers with disabilities, maybe hold a protest or two, as was the Oberlin way. So we got some meager funds through the student union and started planning a campus wide event. About that time, I got a call from Amanda Zola, who was attending Oberlin then. She had heard of our plans and wanted to recommend we invite her father out to speak. At the time, I had not yet read any of Irv’s work and really had no idea of who he was. I went to the library and found a few articles and a book by him, called Missing Pieces. I couldn’t put them down. To my utter shock and amazement, there was something called the disability rights movement going on. And apparently, our little group at Oberlin was hardly the first to advocate that there might be barriers in society, that people with disabilities had been marginalized. There was, apparently, a whole history I knew nothing about, and moreover, I had stumbled upon one of the leaders of this movement.

It was with much anticipation and with a bit of a lump in my throat that I dialed the phone.

“Dr. Zola?”

“Yes,” came the voice on the other end of the phone.

“You don’t know me, but I’m calling from Oberlin College”

“Oh, yes, is this Steve? Amanda told me that you might be calling.”

“Well, Dr. Zola, I…”

“Call me Irv.”

“Um, okay, uh, Irv. We’re trying to put together an awareness day out here and I ran into Amanda and she said you’d be a really good person to speak and I wanted to know if you’d be willing to come out?”

“Steve, I’d be honored. What I’d really like to do is tell some of my stories.”

“Tell stories?”

“Well, yes. I can do a formal academic talk if you want, but I find this is a better way to reach people with our message.”

“Our message?”

“That people with disabilities are first and foremost human beings. That we are valid.”

And so the rest of the conversation went. I was flabbergasted by all this. I went into the phone call expecting to apologize for the fact that we were a small group at a small college in a small town a long way from Boston. I had no idea what he would make of our holding an “awareness day” or whether he would even have the time of day for us. Yet I left the conversation feeling like I was in fact doing important work, that there was a message that we all had a stake in passing on, and most significantly, that there was a man who knew all about this and who had been writing and teaching on these topics for many years -- a man who told stories who would be honored to join us and who simply wanted to be called Irv.

The night before the big day arrived and we were a bustle with activities. We were running all over campus, putting up signs, spreading the word. Campus security almost busted us when we attempted to hang a forty-foot banner off the main academic building on campus. But we threatened to protest and they relented.

Someone had to go to the airport to pick up Irv, and I volunteered. At the time, the only transportation we could find was Carol’s big blue hippie van, complete with Grateful Dead stickers (you remember, Carol, the intelligent, disarming and beautiful woman in the wheelchair who is another story) So, off I went to the Cleveland airport to pick up Irv. I found him at the gate, where he was waiting in one of those airport wheelchairs, looking nonetheless dapper in a trench coat with his white beard. He said it was too far for him to walk all the way out to the parking lot, and could we find someone to push him in the rent-a-wreck airport chair. I looked around, but couldn’t find anyone. After we waited about ten minutes, I said, “it looks like it’s just you and me, so should I push you?” He said, “well, you are welcome to try”. I really wanted to make a good impression on him, and felt awful about not having thought this through. So there we were, one guy in a wheelchair, pushing another guy in a wheelchair down the hall. But we made it out to the parking lot, and he seemed in good humor about the whole business. And good humor was required, since the next obstacle, the big blue hippy van, had seats up a good three feet off the ground and no lift. But he pulled with all his might, and I pushed with all of mine (not being able to avoid grabbing him by the seat of the pants in the process) and we got him up in the front seat. I crawled in back, pulled in my chair, and got into the drivers seat next to him. Off we went. I was mortified.

But, you know, he wasn’t. He asked how preparations for the big day were going and I told him about our confrontation with security. He got a kick out of it. And from there, the conversation just flowed back and forth, back and forth. I cannot impart what an impression this man made on me, what it meant to hear from somebody who had lived this way most all his life that not only was it possible to integrate a disability into one’s view of oneself, but that one could thrive in doing so. And as solicitous as I was of his experiences, he was just as solicitous of mine. He wanted to know what I thought about being disabled. He wanted to know what I felt about being disabled. And for all the teachers, and counselors and professionals that had asked me those kinds of questions in the past, this was one of the few times I felt I could answer them in completely blunt terms. Because Irv had been there, and because he wanted to know about me. As we turned onto campus, we were talking about what it means to have pride in oneself as a person with a disability. And indeed, being with Irv, that’s just how I felt. Proud.

The big day came. We held our lectures and events and it went quite well. And as a result of that day, our little group expanded quite a bit. We eventually won greater access to the classrooms, dorms and offices on that campus. But to this day, the moment we all still recall most clearly was Irv telling his stories. And taking them in again, I find brand new lessons to be learned. I think what Irv was ultimately telling us was that at the personal level, a disability such as this is something like a companion in one’s life. Sometimes this companion takes center stage, other times it is off to the side—but it is always there. And as the stages of life unfold, there are new feelings and revelations to contend with, or to enjoy, or to set aside, or to share.

So, I don’t know if there’s any one moment in which I can claim that I felt truly healed from what happened to me. But I can tell you this. That moment in the big blue hippie van with Irv is one of the first times I can remember feeling whole.


Carol and Stephen’s Wedding, August 1993.

“You two look absolutely beautiful. But Carol, I hadn’t figured you for the white wedding dress type”

“Well, what are you trying to tell me, Irv?” joked Carol.

“I dunno. Guess I expected Tie-Dye. I saw the big blue van parked out front with the dead stickers on it. Is that your limo for the occasion?”

“Nope, we sprung for the real deal,” I said.

“Listen, I know you’ve got the whole procession of people who want to wish you good luck and admire Steve in a tuxedo. But I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of both of you. Be well.”

And we have been.