A Mississippi man is honored in New York for his extraordinary ability to inspire independence among his peers with disabilities.
By Eric Levy
Dwight Owens came to New York City from his hometown of Taylorsville, Mississippi, in June 2010 to be presented an award from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service at Radio City Music Hall.
It was Dwight’s first visit to New York City. The hustle and bustle of Manhattan couldn’t be more different from Taylorsville. He went from a population of 1,300 to one of 1.6 million. New Yorkers were rushing past him at what seemed to be the speed of light.
If this wasn’t enough of an adjustment, then picture Dwight on a scooter attempting to maneuver his mode of transportation between the hordes of people he encountered in this very strange metropolis. Dwight, injured in a car accident years before, sat in his scooter with the severe spinal cord injury that was caused by a car collision with a drunk driver.
Dwight arrived at LaGuardia Airport earlier that day and went straight by taxi to downtown Manhattan to get a glimpse of Ground Zero. When it was time to head uptown to Radio City Music Hall, one cabbie after another made excuses for not allowing his scooter in their vehicles. Plan B was to find a subway station with an elevator. Dwight had to maneuver his scooter 1.5 miles until he found one.
To most, this would be a situation that would arouse anger and frustration. But not for Dwight Owens. It’s his exceptional nature, his commitment to living an independent life and encouraging other people with disabilities to do so, that had earned him the distinction of receiving the award he was about to be presented.
Source of Strength
Dwight’s odyssey from football player and high school teacher, to hospital patient undergoing a slew of surgeries, to a life dedicated to helping people go beyond their disability, is a story of one man’s hope and utmost determination to live a life of independence.
It was August 5, 2005. The 23-year-old Dwight Owens was driving to Collins High School in Mississippi, not far from his home, where he was to attend a teacher’s meeting a day before classes were to begin. He had already taught at nearby Laurel High School as a technology teacher, but this was supposed to be the beginning of his career as a math teacher at Collins. It’s the subject he had always dreamed of teaching. Collins was his alma mater, where he played on the school’s football team. He had plans to become a football coach there. But that never happened. Not even for one day. He never made it to the school. A drunk driver crashed into Dwight’s car, which was demolished and caused his spinal cord to become severely injured. The accident occurred on Highway 84, just five minutes away from Highway 37, where his father was shot a decade earlier. Then, the young Dwight was about to get on a school bus when he was told the news. Dwight, his mother, and four siblings rushed to the scene. Dwight saw his father lying in the middle of the road, blood rushing from his head. They got to see him while he was still barely alive. He died shortly after.
“Once I overcame my father’s death,” Dwight says, “I felt I could overcome anything that came my way. My family bonded and became closer. We never let any adversity get to us. I always knew anything after that would be a breeze. It definitely helped me to deal with what happened to me.”
That commitment to overcome any obstacle after that tragic shooting was tested when Dwight awoke in the hospital following his accident. “The doctors were trying to keep me alive,” he recalls. “When I was told I had spinal cord injury, it was a real shocker. I was in so much pain. I just wanted it to stop. I was trying to move my legs, but I couldn’t.” Dwight was permanently paralyzed.
He knew right then and there that he would be experiencing a major life change. After some initial anger, he says, “it didn’t take long to overcome the bitterness.”
Road to Recovery
Following a year in the hospital and undergoing multiple surgeries, Dwight was in rehab for seven months. It was there that Dwight’s road to recovery began. “There were people there who couldn’t breathe and had no family. No matter how bad my injury was, there were people who had it worse. It made me humble and the man I am today.”
The man that Dwight is today is one who has devoted himself to speaking to audiences in schools, health care facilities, and prisons about drinking responsibly. “I talk about my disability,” Dwight says, “and how it was caused by a drunk driver.”
That drunk driver was a 74-year-old man named Herman Posey. He had no driver’s license or car insurance. Dwight was stuck with thousands of dollars in doctor bills. “He lived less than 10 miles from me,” says Dwight. He was a very poor man who lived in a school bus.”
While most people would want to see their assailant spend the rest of his life in prison, Dwight did the opposite. “I don’t believe anyone should die in prison,” says Dwight. “I asked the court for a reduced sentence. The judge gave him eight years with 10 years’ post-release supervision. He’ll probably only serve eight.”
The fact that Posey didn’t apologize to Dwight or show any remorse didn’t much faze him. “I forgave him,” he says in almost a whisper.
With that forgiving attitude and a determination to move beyond his accident, Dwight joined AmeriCorps/LINC (Linking Individuals Into Neighborhoods and Communities), where Dwight helps others with spinal cord injuries to believe that they can live a life of independence and provides them the resources to do so.
“Once you get your own place,” he adds, “you’re free. It’s a fresh breath of life.” Alternatively, Dwight also arranges for nursing home residents with spinal cord injury to go back to live with their families. “When their families see them go shopping and driving, for instance, that they can do for themselves,”
Dwight says with pride in his voice, “it often unites the family and works out well.” There are people in nursing homes, Dwight has observed, whose spouses have left them after their injury.
In the case of Dwight and Tamika, who met in 2004, they started dating for the most part following his accident, and married two years later. Dwight recited his vows in a wheelchair. After Dwight’s injury, Tamika says, “I tried to pull away. I didn’t know how to deal with it. But I couldn’t. I saw that he was the type of person that wouldn’t let anything get him down. We’re just fine now. Like any relationship, we take it day by day.”
One of the things Tamika values most about Dwight, she says, is that “he helps other disabled people feel better about their situation.”
That dedication—helping others with spinal cord injuries to live independent, productive lives—is why Dwight was honored that day in New York City. Margie Moore, Dwight’s coordinator at LINC, who had nominated him for the service award, says that he’s “the type of person committed to a goal. He’s passionate about people with disabilities living independently.”
It’s a passion that Dwight has applied to his own life. “I told myself that I will live as independent a life as I could with as little help from people as possible,” he says with great conviction. “I live what I tell people with disabilities—that you can do everything you used to do—you’re just sitting down while you’re doing it.”
Eric Levy is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn, New York.