José Hernandez
José Hernandez may be the happiest driver in New York City. The image of a smiling New York driver may be hard to fathom, but when you hear why Hernandez is so happy, it makes perfect sense.

Behind the Wheel in NYC

Jose-Jessica-doggyTo understand Hernandez’s cheery mood, let’s go back to last year — before he had a van — and his return from a visit to Washington, D.C. On the heels of a four-hour train trip, Hernandez rode the subway for another 40 minutes to the stop nearest his house. He got off, ready to be home, only to find the elevator was broken. He sent his aide home with his luggage and rode to the next accessible station — five stops away — and got off, only to find out the elevator was broken there, too. He rode to the next accessible stop, another five stations away, got off, turned around and rode downtown. He eventually got home, but the subway breakdowns added almost three hours onto an already tiring travel day.

For the first 19 years after he was paralyzed, that was the daily reality facing Hernandez any time he wanted to venture out of his Bronx residence. With no accessible vehicle, his only option was New York’s famed subway.

“It’s one of the largest systems in the world and if I was nondisabled, I would love it. You get on in one location and you can get out 20 miles away for $2.75. There’s nowhere else in the U.S. you are able to do that. Unfortunately, if you’re disabled, there’s only a handful of train stops that are accessible, and you have to plan your routes accordingly.”

Hernandez’s planning got easier last year when he purchased an accessible 2016 Dodge Caravan. “It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” he says. “The best part is now I can actually do stuff like drive down to Philadelphia and take my nieces and nephews out for ice cream, whereas I couldn’t do that before. That world was completely shut out to me. Yes, family came to see me, but I didn’t have the freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted.”

The Scott Driving System includes a large panel that controls secondary functions like adjusting wipers and windows.

The Scott Driving System includes a large panel that controls secondary functions like adjusting wipers and windows.

Instead of mapping out a complicated plan to attack the inaccessible subway, or relying on others, Hernandez now drives himself all over the city and the Northeast. “I’ve put on close to 8,000 miles since I purchased it,” he says. “I drive to the office a couple days a week, and I run errands. I drive it a lot.”

Injured at 15, driving his new van was Hernandez’s first experience behind the wheel outside of driver’s ed. As a C5 quad, he relies on the Scott Driving System. “It’s an older system, but it works so well,” he says. “Steering is minimal effort, gas and brake is forward and back, respectively, and all of your secondary controllers, whether it’s shifting, lowering your windows, turning on the radio, changing the stations, they are all on the control panel to my left.” Asked if it was stressful learning to drive in one of the country’s most notorious driving cities, Hernandez shrugged it off. “I’m a typical New Yorker, and I don’t know anything else,” he says. “I find it fine. You know, there are a lot of people that are idiots, but you need to just be aware. You drive your vehicle and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Just make sure that you’re safe, and you don’t hit anyone else and no one else hits you.”

The Bigger Picture
Advocacy Pride

Jose-ROCHJosé’s road to being an outspoken advocate started when he attended a meeting of United Spinal’s New York City chapter, but he says attending the Roll on Capitol Hill is what changed everything.

“There was a very emotional moment for me after the awards ceremony at my first Roll on Capitol Hill. I literally went outside the reception room and I got emotional. I remember it clear as day. Everybody’s inside having drinks and wine, and I was sitting there thinking, wow, I’ve come a long way from being a disabled individual in the inner streets in the Bronx to being in our nation’s capital, representing not only myself but the disabled community as a whole.

I’m proud to go every year. There’s a sense of pride being there — a sense of being a part of something bigger. I’ve learned to be a good advocate, and I love that every year I get paired up with someone new who hasn’t been to Washington, D.C. I can help teach them, and they help me with their new perspectives.”


Advice For Newbies:
Don’t get hung up on your disability. Focus on your ability and what you can do, and stop focusing on what you cannot do.

Can’t Live Without:
I hacked my Amazon Echo Dot so I can control my amplifier, bed, and a few other devices using nothing but my voice.

On Dating Someone in a Wheelchair:
I thought it was gonna be difficult, but she’s been in a wheelchair her entire life, and she thinks differently. She has opened my eyes to a whole new world, and I love her to death for it.

On Skydiving:
You go from zero to terminal velocity in 1.2 seconds. I didn’t expect that speed. The air pressure rushed into my lungs and chest and made it hard to breathe.