A Neurotrauma Tale


Uncommon Courage Times Two 

Football can be a violent game, with recent medical  analysis showing increasing incidences of concussions and spinal cord injuries.

It was high school football that got JR Harding, then 6’5” and 230 pounds and already with a college football scholarship. It was a Saturday evening five days before his 17th birthday, but the night After The Big Game! “We were a high-powered program in a small community that almost always won,” JR reflects, “but unfortunately we lost the night before to miss the playoffs. A couple of the team captains were envious of my status and influence among the younger players and, coupled
with the loss, took out their frustrations by jumping me.”

The instant Harding hit the ground he knew he sustained a devastating injury. “Life changed right then! One second I am walking, healthy with a full ride; the next all that is gone.” To make the tragic scene surreal, his attackers became those who had to
provide the initial first-aid, based on JR’s instruction from his Boy Scout and lifeguard training.

While JR knew instinctively at the moment of his attack he was paralyzed, there is a wide gap between knowing it and accepting the permanence. “I was still in shock – you somehow think it will all be temporary – you just don’t quite get it yet. Your life seems to come to an end but the rest of the world goes on and that is hard. You lack freedom
and independence – to go out or to bed when you want, to make love to a girl. You are no longer the master of your own schedule, and you enter this with absolutely no background to prepare you for it.”

It soon came time for JR to use a wheelchair and the choice between a manual versus powerchair, and he says, “the jock suddenly came back to me, and I told everyone
despite the obstacles I would use the manual one. As an athlete, therapy made sense because it was practicing movements every day. 

It took me eight days but the first time I moved that chair 8 inches was like winning an Olympic Medal.” Though the football scholarship was gone, JR needed his education
more than ever and enrolled at Western Kentucky University to become the only significantly disabled student out of 32,000. “It wasn’t just being alone, but no one planned for our challenges back then. I encountered high curbs, narrow doorways, cramped halls, lots of stairs, and no support.” 

JR soon transferred to Wright State in Dayton, Ohio, and it was an epiphany! “It was a new college with a strong medical program, so it interconnected buildings by wide and dry tunnels.” He was one of 1,500 disabled students and there was a sense of normalcy – friends to hang out with and compare experiences, few people starring, transportation, and offsite housing. “Before Wright State,” he recalls, “people didn’t want to be mean but did not know how to interact with me; there I found others to relate to and gain inspiration.”

Graduate school followed in Pensacola at the University of West Florida and it was dejavu – “I was again one of two or three disabled among 10,000 students so I was right back at the beginning.” Then the United States passed the American’s with Disabilities Act in 1990, and JR emphasizes that “everything changed. People
in my situation earned rights by law.” West Florida like most public institutions needed
to make significant advances. JR became a student leader in charge of special needs and inclusion. “My days at Wright State were like being in Disney World; I wanted to bring that to West Florida. More important, suddenly I was a varsity player again! I was relevant.”

A personal-use vehicle soon followed, and dating. Doctorate work began at Florida State University in 1993, and then-Governor Lawton Chiles appointed JR to the Board of Regents as Chair of the Student Affairs Committee to integrate students with disabilities into the strategic master plan for all State universities. Harding beams that “I was 28-years-old and The One Who Rules!” Chiles reappointed JR to the Regents, making him the only student to receive this honor twice. “That I felt spoke
volumes about my work and personal value – I became a Higher Education Rock Star!” He was just two unfinished chapters away from completing his Doctorate, and after graduation Governor-Elect Jeb Bush already made an offer to work with him in Tallahassee. Then lightning struck twice.

At I-75 and The Florida Turnpike JR suffered a severe muscle spasm that shook his van
so violently it flipped at 75 miles-per-hour, hurling him through the windshield. He awoke in the median with a broken shoulder, two broken legs, and a second severe spinal cord injury that increased his paralysis. “All the independence that I gained in 15 years up to that point I lost in that moment,” muses JR.
“For the next few days I was so fragile and vulnerable, then remembered how close I was to my degree and rallied to finish it. Governor Bush stuck to his commitment, and though I started my own consulting and public speaking firm, I need a government career for the healthcare benefits.”

JR today fights for all those who cannot fight for themselves, explaining that “all of us have inalienable rights, to work and to contribute.” He helped author the 2004 Accessibility Guidelines that are now the 2010 Accessibility Standards, received national appointment twice by President George W. Bush, and also worked with the President Barack Obama administration. He leads the charge to pass legislation, corral finances, and get others involved in the legislative process to make the door of opportunity
wider for future generations. “We live in a nation that values self-reliance, depending
on everyone – with or without disabilities – to attain meaningful achievements for the greater good. This is crucial because 70 percent of our disabled face unemployment.”

Harding says many recent improvements for the disabled come ironically not from their efforts but voluntarily by the aging Baby Boomer population: “Seniors today expect to go everywhere, as independent as possible.
They plan to age gracefully and perhaps pass away in their own home, so the building trades now are beginning to construct houses with universal access. Baby Boomers are radically changing inclusion in America.”

The first graduate of Leadership Tallahassee and Leadership Florida with a significant
disability, JR stresses the assets of the disabled as an economic engine, reminding that
“nearly 20 percent of all Americans have a disability of one type or another, and they are worth an estimated $1 trillion with nearly a quarter of that as disposable income. Astute business people realize they cannot ignore 1 out of every 5 potential customers. And the disabled have tremendous brand loyalty.”  He enjoys a proven relationship with the hospitality industry to break down attitudinal as well as physical barriers.

Successful in business and as an author – his first book, “Now What?” details his journey and his next, “ADA Adventure” is out soon – Dr. Harding is happily married to a woman who accepted his condition, something he describes as “an extraordinary decision on her part. Most people who sustain spinal cord injuries lose families and loved ones; she took it on as part of her life.” 

That may be the biggest lesson Dr. Harding learned on his journey so far: “As a kid I didn’t need anyone’s help so I had to learn how to ask others for assistance, and that this isn’t a weakness but in fact a sign of courage. I literally pray at night for the person who wakes me up every morning and prepares me for the day at 6 a.m. It is very touching that hundreds of compassionate people have worked so hard to make my life possible, and empowered me to have an active life. Despite my challenges I reinvented my life and with my team of family, friends, and loved ones, I’ve become a varsity
player again!”

To have Dr. JR Harding be a varsity player with your group to empower people with
disabilities, seniors, and those with special needs to live life to the fullest, contact him
at 850-510-4628 or at www.JRharding.com for The Health of It!