Burnie Blackmon’s Journey to Mobility Independence

“Before you make a decision. Talk to [a product specialist] or better, you can go to a local dealer. Touching, examining, and experiencing vehicles is too important.”

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A BraunAbility employee since the company’s founding in 1972, Burnie Blackmon was close friends with our late founder, Ralph Braun for decades. Today, he works in BraunAbility’s Customer Experience Group, where he draws from lived experience with a disability, helping BraunAbility customers find the same mobility independence he has found with BraunAbility products

Every day, he drives his Chrysler Pacifica, which he calls “Nellie”, to work. Blackmon says Nellie, along with all the BraunAbility vehicles he has driven over the years give him, “seamless mobility.” 

Life Changing Moments

I broke my neck exactly one month after my 16th birthday. I was swimming in Murder Creek near Kirkland, Alabama, with my brother and friends. I decided to do a jackknife off a makeshift diving board we had rigged up. I can remember springing from the board and bending down to touch my toes and then suddenly seeing a bright flash of light as I hit the water. The next thing I knew, I was floating face down in the creek unable to raise my head above the water.

I could hear the other kids laughing and playing as I struggled to get my head above water. I kept holding my breath thinking someone would soon come to my aid. Eventually, I lost consciousness. When my brother finally realized something was wrong, he lifted my head and pulled me to shore. As he jerked and tugged to drag me up on the beach, he administered crude CPR which restarted my breathing. My mother had watched it all happen and knew there was something terribly wrong. I had to be dragged up a steep embankment and driven several miles over bumpy Alabama back roads before I made it to a hospital. 

The next day I was told I had broken my neck at the C5 vertebrae and had no use of my legs and limited use of my arms.

For months afterward, my mother did not tell me the official copy of my Alabama driver's license had come in the mail the day of my accident. Every 16-year-old anxiously awaits the freedom and independence that day brings. In my case, those two things were taken away from me on the day of my accident- at least that is what it seemed at the time. 

Rehabilitation After Spinal Cord Injury

I spent the next 16 weeks and three days in the hospital, and while the doctors and nurses did an excellent job of helping me through my injury, I still had a long way to go with the rehabilitation process. At the time, the cost of one day at a rehabilitation center was around $30, and our household's weekly income was under $200. Rehab services were not covered by our medical insurance, and paying out-of-pocket was not an option.

This was the first of many times I would witness my mother's determination to give me every opportunity to be independent. My mother was, in some ways, one of the most timid people I have known. She could also be the most determined. Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) offered financial assistance for rehabilitation expenditures; however, I did not meet the criteria for their program because I was too young. My rehab was so important, and resources so few, but my mother would allow nothing to stand in her way. Because of her persistence, VRS finally agreed to help with the rehabilitation expenses. 

My experience at the Mobile Rehabilitation Center provided me with many invaluable lessons. The most important of which was not to focus on what ability I had lost but to make the best use of my remaining ability and to reevaluate my future plans.  

Learning to Drive as a Quadriplegic

In 1962 a quadriplegic-anyone with an injury to the cervical spine—was not considered a candidate for driving. At the rehab center, I watched paraplegic patients—many of whom had similar abilities to me—as they were trained to drive using special hand controls. My dexterity and strength were limited, but I had no doubt I could drive too

I was able to convince my mother if she would get the family car equipped with hand controls I could drive.

Of course, she knew allowing me behind the wheel was not exactly accepted protocol for a quadriplegic at the time, but she also knew the independence of driving could positively impact my attitude and self-esteem. She would not allow limitations to be put on me. Even though society said quads should not drive, we proved them wrong.

My road to driving independence was rough, to say the least, but the freedom and mobility my wheelchair van has given me has provided me many opportunities.

- Burnie Blackmon

Vehicle Modifications for Drivers with Disabilities 

My mother ordered the hand controls and had them installed by a local mechanic, who everyone knew as Hot Shot. The mechanic had never seen hand controls, let alone been trained in how to install them. On a Thursday evening in 1962, my mother pulled up to the rehab center with our 1961 four-door Rambler equipped with right-hand controls. I hit the road with my mother, driving the entire 2.5-hour trip back home. I spent most of that weekend behind the wheel including the return trip to the rehab center on Easter Sunday. The entire rehab staff was unaware I was driving. 

I continued to drive with my original Alabama license-which made no mention of my disability-until about six years later when I was pulled over in Northwest Indiana for burning my tires at a stop sign. Of course, the officer realized the 15-year-old described on my license did not fit the description of the person he had observed operating the vehicle, albeit, somewhat recklessly, with an out-of-state license plate over the past six months. I had been in Indiana for two years at that point. 

In the eight years since my injury, attitudes began to change. A quadriplegic, providing they could demonstrate they could operate a motor vehicle safely, had generally, the same driving privileges as others on the road. So, I applied for and received my first valid driver's license as a quadriplegic. 

Finding Independence in a BraunAbility Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle

This story has several morals, but I share it for two reasons. First, my road to driving independence was rough, to say the least, but the freedom and mobility my wheelchair van has given me has provided me many opportunities, including my 40 years with Ralph Braun and, over 50 years at BraunAbility.

Secondly, my mother taught me an important lesson: you do what needs to be done, no matter what limitations others put on you or what limitations you put on yourself. My desire for independence would not have been enough as a 16-year-old boy. I needed my mother to bring to life the dreams I thought had been destroyed by my injury.

As I have mentioned before, attitude and perception determine whether a life is just survived or whether it is truly lived.  Thanks to my mother's influence, I fall into the latter.

Burnie’s Advice for Purchasing an Accessible Vehicle

Since he’s worked to help people with disabilities on their road to independence for over 50 years, Blackmon wants those looking for a wheelchair accessible vehicle to know where to start. 

He said, “While I do most of my shopping on the Internet, buying a vehicle on the internet is not the way to go. You need to feel and experience a [vehicle].”

He continued, “Before you make a decision. Talk to [a product specialist] or better, you can go to a local dealer. Touching, examining, and experiencing vehicles is too important.”

To learn more about the Chrysler Pacifica or other BraunAbility mobility products, contact your local BraunAbility dealer today.

Burnie is a longtime customer experience representative at BraunAbility and repeat customer. When you purchase a mobility product from BraunAbility, you join a powerful community. 

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