Many of you are probably familiar with the annual Darwin Awards. Invented by Wendy Northcutt, a UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in molecular biology, Northcutt explains the Darwin Awards as commemorating individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives by eliminating themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chance of long-term survival.
Northcutt claims most people assume that basic common sense eliminates the need for public service announcements such as, “Warning: Coffee is hot!” and “Superman cape does not enable wearer to fly.” But no amount of caution would have helped the man who used household current to electrocute fish in a pond and then waded in to collect his catch without removing the wire. There are even people who need to be told not to peek inside a gas can using a cigarette lighter. Amazing yet true.
Now, having read about–and laughed at–how able-bodied people can do things that are both reckless and lethal, do we with disabilities think we are above such idiocy? I know I’m not. I can easily imagine that my epitaph might read: Oh yeah? Watch this!
Here’s a confirmed 2010 Darwin Award winner aptly named ANGRY WHEELCHAIR MAN. (The PG version video of his demise can be found on youtube.) The security video camera records an elevator’s doors opening and a woman entering the elevator. Just as the doors close, a man in an electric wheelchair suddenly appears, moving at high speed and stopping just short of the doors. We can see through the glass panels on either side of the doors that the elevator car with the woman inside is descending, and we can safely assume the man can see that as well. But then he slowly backs away from the doors and rams them at high speed, bending the doors inward at the bottom. He backs up again and rams the now bent doors a second time. The third time he backs up and rams the doors, he breaks through them and plummets headfirst down an empty elevator shaft. His death is confirmed a short time later.
One facetious youtube commenter suggested that if you spend too much time sitting, eventually you’ll forget that gravity is a thing. Others wondered if he was suicidal. Most dismissed that theory, citing his actions as directly connected to, according to their interpretation of the video evidence, the elevator passenger refusing to open the doors and let him on board.
We’ll never know if he was suicidal or merely impatient and vengeful. One bright spot in this tragedy is that, after the incident, the elevator door design was modified to withstand high impact and not easily crumple inward like those that the unfortunate wheelchair man was able to mangle so easily.
Let’s conclude with some stories by and about “almost were” Darwin Award recipients: people with cognitive disabilities who survived some minor and not so minor mishaps.
People with neurological and vascular conditions can show signs of mild dementia, displaying memory loss, word confusion, and misplacement of everyday objects. Following are from an online forum for aneurysm patients whose vascular treatments led them to do things to which you and I can totally relate.
“… one of mine is making a mug of coffee that had gone missing. I knew I’d just made it. The following day, my husband found it on a shelf in the cupboard under the stairs.”
“I put on some eggs to boil in a little cast iron pot, went into the bedroom to watch TV and fell asleep. My husband came home around midnight to the flame still under the pot and exploded charred eggs all over the kitchen, they were black… he found me sleeping and just cleaned it up best he could. He told me about it in the am I am horrified and thankful I didn’t start a fire. I always use cast iron cookware now, it’s so durable!”
Not only can I relate to these mishaps, I, too, have felt grateful that the outcome wasn’t worse and that I can laugh about it now.
I’d like to think that living with multiple sclerosis, a lifelong condition that we know makes us forgetful and spacey, also makes us more cautious and less apt to take the huge risks all those able-bodied people did to qualify for a Darwin Award. The only disabled winner I found was the South Korean Angry Wheelchair Guy. Every other winner seemed to be fit as a fiddle and ready to go–to oblivion, unbeknownst to them.
Have you become more cautious over time? Do you live with a loved one? I’ve lived alone for two years now and I’m positive that my actions are much more measured, more deliberate, and I am more mindful of the risks associated with, say, falling in an empty apartment. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the last fall I had was close to three years ago, back when I was living with my mother, and a friend of ours was present, too. No falls since, not even close calls. Am I living in la-la land? Do you think I’m taking credit for something that’s just based on probabilities anyway and my number will eventually come up—as being 9-1-1? Do tell!1-3