Stan Clawson doesn’t let his T9-10 complete break keep him from succeeding in his chosen profession
It was August 20, 1996, and 20-year-old Stan Clawson was out enjoying a rock climbing adventure in Little Cottonwood Canyon. As he repelled off a cliff, his gear came apart and he plummeted 48 feet. He first landed on his back, then the momentum rolled him into a nearby stream.
“I have no recollection of the fall, really – no pain,” says Clawson, who was with his cousin and a friend at the time of the accident. “I lost three units of blood, broke ribs, collapsed both lungs, and severed my spinal cord.” Stan underwent a “classic” surgical procedure to insert rods and screws in his back.
“While I was in the ICU, I had a vision of being at the bottom of a well,” Stan says. The sides of the well were glowing red like the embers of a campfire. I remember thinking to myself that I needed to get out of the well, that if I could just climb out, I could heal. In the vividness of the dream, I actually felt myself climbing back up to the top from this terrible pit,” Listening to Stan recalling his dream with quiet intensity makes you feel like you were with him in that well.
Accepting the present; looking to the future
After his surgery, Stan experienced a rush of acceptance, a certainty that things would be okay if he worked hard. The question was never IF he was going to pursue his college path toward work. The question was whether he would be able to work in the field he loved.
During the five-week hospital stay, he had missed the fall term at the University of Utah where was studying his passion – filmmaking. Shortly after his release, he set about to make a holiday film, just to see if he could still hold a camera. He could.
“I was back at school again in January for the start of the winter term. I took one class at first to prove to myself that I could do it,” he says. “If the accident had to happen, it was perfect timing. I was young, resilient and in good physical shape.”
Entering the work world after graduation
Stan’s first job after graduation was helping to start up a company called Pipe Dream Productions. Next, he went on to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee where he not only worked on the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, but also participated in the Paralympic Games that season. For a time, he worked at the National Abilities Center in Park City, Utah doing outreach and public relations.
Leadership and learning
For the last eight years, Stan has been doing what he loves most – working at his alma mater supervising a staff of six at Campus Video Services. But this is just his “8:00 to 5:00” job.
Stan also teaches an introductory-level course called Video Production I at “The U” and also freelances on video projects focusing on disability issues. In his spare time, he also gives lectures in the Business Department on the perks of hiring those with disabilities.
“Before the accident, I had a negative view of disabilities,”Stan says. “Now, my goal is to inform and educate others and show them that living with a disability isn’t such a bad thing. Employing people with disabilities brings tremendous value to any organization – not just in terms of tax advantages, which are nice, but also in the loyalty and perseverance that we bring to a company.”
The worst thing you can do is become shut in.
“Learning how to get from the wheelchair to bed was like crossing the Grand Canyon. And that first day in public in a wheelchair was very hard for me, but my mentor showed me it could be done!”
Don’t shelve things.
“Figure out what your goals are and then adapt your methods to reach them. If you get involved, your confidence will come back and grow!”
Don’t worry. You’ll be able to get a job.
“When you go for an interview, don’t be afraid the employer won’t hire you. Focus on making the interviewer feel at ease with you. Do some undercover work on the building beforehand to be sure it is accessible. Doing this kind of research shows that you’re a self-starter.”
Never adopt a rear-view mentality.
“I’ve had frustrating days, but I can honestly say I’ve never been depressed. That’s not going to be the case for everybody though. You have to make the decision to look forward and find a great support network of family, friends and peer mentors.”
Be patient with Able-bodied people in your life.
“You can’t expect them to be on board right away. I remember people speaking slowly and loudly to me like I’d lost my hearing and my mind. Then there was one man who was trying to pay me a compliment. He said, ‘Wow, you work really hard for a disabled guy!’ Try to look at these situations as an opportunity to show people something different about what it’s like to have a spinal cord injury. You become a professor in a way, teaching people how to perceive disability.”
Speaking from the heart about spinal cord injuries
Today, at age 35, Stan has full upper body use but is paralyzed below the two upper abdominal muscles. “I have an awesome two-pack,” he jokes. Stan’s sense of humor has helped him to keep him positive and reaching for all that life has to offer.
“I have a great social life and have had a girlfriend now for two years,” Stan says. Dating can be tricky, but keep at it. It may take a while, but the choice is up to you.”
“As time goes on, people will start to see you and not the chair. In fact, there have been occasions when my friends picked me up to go out to dinner, and then left me stranded in the car at the restaurant. They’re just chatting away and forget that someone needs to get the wheelchair out of the trunk!”
We hope you liked Back to Work, our series on participating in the work world with a spinal cord injury. If you have specific questions about working with an SCI, please contact us: Contact Will2Walk. We would be happy to answer your questions.