A gunshot left Harsh Thakkar paralyzed and changed the course of his life. Wheelchair basketball helped him get back on track. Now he works at National Rehab Hospital in Washington, D.C., trying to help others do the same.

As the Spinal Cord Injury Peer Wellness Specialist for the National Rehab Hospital in Washington, D.C., Harsh Thakkar spends a lot of his time planning and running adaptive fitness programs for thousands of people with disabilities in the D.C. Metro Area.

For Thakkar, 31, seeing people discover and rediscover themselves through sports and fitness is more than a job, it’s personal.

Thakkar, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, had just started classes at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, in 2005 when he was robbed and shot, leaving him paralyzed at T12-L1. A strong athlete in high school, Thakkar’s injury changed everything. “I had identified myself as an athlete all my life,” he says. “And then, for nine months, I was completely stripped away from that identity.”

Thakkar eventually rediscovered his athletic identity through adaptive sports. While going back to finish his degree he learned about wheelchair basketball and ended up getting a scholarship to play at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. He currently plays for the NRH Punishers, and he was recently named team manager. When he is not hooping it up, Thakkar also plays on a wheelchair lacrosse team and enjoys adaptive skiing – both snow and water.

Almost 12 years after his injury, Thakkar is dedicated to helping others rediscover their identities, regardless of their athletic background. “I have a lot of people that I encounter that say, ‘I was never an athlete before, why would I be one now?’” My response to them is you don’t have to be one now, but knowing that the outlet is there for you to try it, why would you not want to try it?”

He preaches that there is value beyond the physical exertion and exercise. “When I first started playing, I met people who completely changed my views on what disability means. Not just in terms of playing sports, but that was the first time I saw somebody driving a car. That was the first time I saw somebody breaking down their own chair, getting in and out of a car. That was the first time I saw somebody roll into the gym with kids. That was the first time somebody told me that there are colleges that have wheelchair basketball teams. The first time somebody told me that I can get a job. It was a lot of firsts. On top of that, I got to learn from other people’s mistakes. I learned how and when to ask for help from them. Obviously, the sport helped because it’s something that I liked in the beginning, but it was the people more than it was the sport itself.”

Now, 12 years later, Thakkar often finds himself in the mentoring role. He tries to help people new to SCI/D understand the situation facing them. “This is something that isn’t going away. This is your new reality,” he says. “Even if there is a cure or your paralysis improves, you’re not gonna go back to exactly who you were. I’ve seen many people recover. I’ve seen a lot of people recover to the point where nobody thought they would get to that point, including themselves. Yet, they are not like they used to be — not in a good or bad way, just different.”

Favorite Accessible Vacation: Northern California
I’d completely forgotten about my National Parks Access Pass when I rolled up to Muir Woods. When the attendant reminded me everyone with a permanent disability gets in free to national parks, I looked in my wallet and there it was.

After three straight vacations at the beach — Jamaica, Bahamas and Cancun — I told my parents and my brother I was getting tired of beaches. I’m a big fan of national parks and I’d always wanted to see Yosemite. Scheduling a trip around a longer stay in San Francisco allowed us to see Yosemite, Muir Woods, Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe — everything is so close. The whole trip was great, but Yosemite was definitely the highlight. Other than a few hills here and there, everything was pretty accessible. I could access all the viewpoints on my own and I didn’t feel like a burden having to ask my brother to push me in certain places. I even snapped a nice little video of me rolling through the accessible entrance to Half Dome over and over again. Rolling through the giant redwoods in Muir Woods was also surprisingly accessible and fun. And, of course, rolling across the Golden Gate Bridge was awesome.

Why I Joined United Spinal:
Being a United Spinal member means I can fight the larger fight of helping people with spinal cord injuries and paralysis both in my community and on a national level. The Roll on Capitol Hill is our chance to make our voices heard and help determine the policies that affect us.

Can’t Live Without:
I use my KAFO leg braces two to three times a week, and besides the health advantages of standing, they’re great for getting stuff like laundry and cleaning done.

Sage Advice:
Keeping a daily log of my pain helps me analyze different aspects of my pain and makes me aware of different triggers and strategies that can help lessen it.

If I Could Change One Disability-Related Law:
I would tighten up enforcement of disabled parking spots and add some degrees to it. Too many people take advantage and one size doesn’t fit all.