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Hurdles On The road To Greatness

 

Rupert Kinnard '79

 

Knight in shining armor
There is great power in being fairly comfortable with who you are. When my partner, Scott Stapley, arrived at the Memphis hospital from Portland, Ore., (not unlike a knight in shining armor) there was the possibility that medical personnel would ask: “Who are you? You’re not related to the patient. You must adhere to visiting hours.”

Scott didn’t give them the option of trying to figure out what was going on between this African-American man and this younger white guy. He came in and immediately announced: “I’m Rupert Kinnard’s partner. I’ll need a cot or something set up next to him. I’ll be staying with him.” Hospital employees complied with nary a questioning look.

My parents had met Scott on various occasions while I lived in the San Francisco area, where Scott and I had met some six years earlier. After Scott and I moved to Portland and purchased a house together, my mother and father knew we were a committed couple. Still, I can’t imagine they were prepared for what they observed.

It must have been quite the experience for my parents to realize that throughout the years none of their four daughters had ever come close to developing as loving a relationship with a man as their gay son had with his male partner.

For all intents and purposes, Scott became my primary caretaker and advocate in the face of the incompetence of the medical staff. The food poisoning I endured while in the Memphis medical center was just the tip of my hospital horror iceberg. I was so adamant about getting out alive that Scott and I found ourselves being transported back to Portland on a Lear jet with no one else onboard except a pilot, co-pilot, and two paramedics.

When we landed, we were greeted by a group of screaming well-wishers who prompted the pilot to plead: “Could you ask your friends to please stop knocking on the body of the jet?”

Now that I didn’t have to worry whether I would survive my stay in the hospital, it seemed the reality of having become a paraplegic would finally slap me in the face.

Overwhelmed by support
During those difficult days, I was more overwhelmed by the support I received than by the possibility of never being able to walk again. My closest friends established a trust fund that generated more than $17,000 to help with bills and renovations to make my home wheelchair accessible. Volunteers widened doors, redesigned the first-floor bathroom, and constructed a ramp in the back yard, all within three weeks of my return from Memphis.

Other friends organized an awesome fund-raiser at a local theater, which pulled in an impressive amount to help with mounting bills. A great fund-raiser was also held in San Francisco.

Given my present condition, I don’t view myself as being handicapped, and certainly not “disabled.” I think of myself as “less-abled”—certainly able to do many things, but definitely less able than I was when I could walk.

Being less able goes beyond the physical. For example, many people seem less able to have compassion for what those in wheelchairs must go through. The hostility of people on buses when the driver has to take a bit more time to use the lift for my wheelchair is not for the squeamish. I’m looked at with disdain—as if people can’t deal with the sight of human frailty.

I notice the various ways people look at me and I try to understand them. The best reaction is when people smile; the worst is when they look at you and then look through you, as if you’re not there. I’ve come to realize this happens largely because people don’t want to imagine themselves in such a situation. To them, it’s better that folks in wheelchairs simply not exist.

Many people are not aware of what goes on around them. Doors get slammed in my face even though I’m right behind people as they go through. Folks argue that parking in the striped areas next to the space with the handicapped symbol is not the same as parking in the handicapped zone.

I’ve had the unique experience of waiting for a bus in downtown Portland and having someone try to give me a dollar, as if I’m there to beg for financial assistance. Another time, a man walked by me and growled, “Sorry … I don’t have any money to spare.”

There was a time when the main issues of my identity focused on being African American and gay in this society. There had never been any doubt in my mind that many people reacted first to the fact that I am black, and reacted with the stereotypes they had developed in their minds.

Now my wheelchair is what many people react to first and foremost. There are many things I’ve experienced as a less-abled man during the past five years that I share with other less-abled people, but being gay makes it unique in some ways.

Ultimately, I have to take it all on as a challenge. I must endure those who seem convinced that this happened for a reason. I’ve learned to see life differently since I’ve been in my wheelchair—and I would not give up one minute of the last five years. After all, that accident could have been fatal.

I continue to try to empathize and understand the socially disabled. And though it is not automatic, I have learned much from seeing the world through the eyes of a man who was born black, discovered his sexuality, and became a paraplegic.

This article is dedicated to the late Cornell English professor, Dr. Stephen Lacey ’65, for his continued influence on the quality of my life.

Rupert Kinnard ’79 may be contacted at RupeGroup1@aol.com.

Rupert Kinnard's alter-ego, the Brown Bomber, originated in the Cornellian and ran in the Portland, Ore., newspaper Just Out for 10 years. A collection of the cartoons was published in 1991. The Bomber is currently on hiatus.

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