One night in 1987 a Utah State University freshman hopped into the passenger seat of a vehicle being driven by a young man who had been drinking alcohol.
The car Paul Roberts was riding in went off the road and crashed. Roberts, now an assistant professor at Salt Lake Community College, sustained a C-6 injury to his spine, which means that he can’t feel anything from his chest on down.
He spent a total of four months in the hospital and in rehabilitation, trying to learn how to do simple things like getting around without use of his legs and opening drawers or holding a pencil with hands and arms that barely worked.
“After four months in the hospital, they told me I had to go home,” Roberts said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
But he made a decision back then to not be angry or bitter.
“When I was injured I set a goal – I wanted to make my life as normal as possible, to try to have a life like everybody else,” he said.
He earned a bachelor degree, and then a master’s degree in exercise science from the University of Utah. He’s been teaching at SLCC now for almost 13 years. Currently he teaches Foundations of Nutrition and Life, Society and Drugs in the Health and Lifetime Activities Department on the Taylorsville Redwood Campus.
There’s one hour in particular every semester in each class that has had a huge impact on Roberts’ students.
“I tell my story to class every semester,” he said. “Sometimes later in the semester students will come to me and say, ‘You know, my friend wanted to drive drunk and I made sure they didn’t do it.’ It’s good to know I may have prevented someone from being injured or killed or ending up like me.”
Teaching about 20 students in 5 or 6 classes every semester, summer included, for more than a decade, Roberts tries to quantify the number of students he might have impacted.
“How many people have I shown that, even though you have a disability, you can do great things?” he rhetorically asks. “I’m blessed to be where I’m at. I’m happy to be where I’m at.”
The lasting impact of his injury has given Roberts a different perspective on a lot of things, including working at SLCC, which he likes for its approach of inclusivity with students.
“We really embrace diversity, students from all backgrounds,” he said. “We really encourage that, instead of limiting who comes here. We say, ‘Everybody’s welcome.’ I like that a lot, especially as a person with a disability. You see a lot of people in chairs on campus, and I think that’s a good thing. For a lot of people in chairs, getting out, let alone going to school, is intimidating.”
Over the years not much has intimidated Roberts, who loves to try new things.
He’s jumped out of a plane for a tandem skydive experience.
“I don’t think too many guys in a chair do that,” he said.
For about 10 years he played wheelchair rugby, a sport that was featured in the documentary “Murderball.” Roberts also tried downhill skiing, and currently he’s into hand cycling, playing pool and sharpening his game at low-stakes poker with his buddies.
“You just find different ways to do things,” he said. “You have to be creative. There are things I can’t do. I try to keep busy doing thins I can do and not worry about the things I can’t do.”
Roberts was told early on that he should use an electric-powered wheelchair. But he chose then – and still uses – a hand-powered chair, courting normalcy around every bend and hill and staying in better shape along the way than if he opted for the easier way around.
He types about 20 words per minute with an adaptive device. He drives a modified 10-year old Dodge pickup truck. He maintains a healthy diet, avoiding saturated fats, sugars and carbonated sodas. He travels to places like Costa Rica and London, where he spent six weeks in 2010.
In short, he’s pretty normal, which suits him just fine.
“I don’t know how I’ve done it,” he said, reflecting back on his injury. “I couldn’t take care of myself. I spent a whole day crying to get that emotion out. The next day, I just became determined to deal with it the best I can. For me, it was easy to let go of the anger. Maybe it was just in my nature. But to carry around anger, it can destroy you.”