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Disabled athlete shows students thriving life after accident

After his legs were paralyzed in a work injury, life hasn’t just gone on for Bruce Cornell. It has been an adventure, filled with peak experiences and fantastic people.

The wheelchair athlete recently shared his challenges and triumphs, including unforgettable feats like skydiving and competing in the Boston Marathon, with some 23 kids enrolled in Claremont Unified School District’s Summer Day Camp.

The Mountain View classroom was filled with oohs and ahs as Mike Lawshe, director of CUSD’s child development services, presided over an action-packed computer presentation. Video clips showed Mr. Cornell engaged in some of the various sports of which he is an aficionado, wheelchair road racing, wheelchair basketball, hand cycling and water skiing among them.

Mr. Cornell lost the use of his legs at age 32 in a construction accident. Through his presentations, he seeks to demystify what it’s like to be disabled.

“I can do almost anything. Sometimes, I need a little help, like when you picked up my keys,” he said, indicating a helpful student.

In a Q&A that followed Mr. Cornell’s presentation, the kids showed that they were eager for some nuts-and-bolts information about living with a disability.

“How do you drive?” one student asked.

Mr. Cornell explained that his arms are strong enough so that he can lift himself from his wheelchair into the driver’s seat. He uses hand controls that can be fastened to any car in a matter of minutes.

Mr. Cornell discussed the innovations that help him be mobile, including his lightweight athletic wheelchairs, which he let students take for a spin. His hope, he said, is that someone among his young audiences will be spurred to invent the next game-changing piece of adaptive equipment.

“You can do anything you want,” he told students repeatedly.

He has a few ideas about things that could make life easier for people with disabilities. When the students encounter someone who is disabled, why not ask if there’s anything they can do to help?

And as for all of those city planners and architects out there, ramps are always a good idea.

“They’ve done studies that when you have a staircase next to a ramp, 90 percent of people use the ramp. I’d like to ramp the world,” Mr. Cornell said.

Beyond such practical aims, Mr. Cornell wants to inspire people—through his appearances at athletic events and through his numerous speaking engagements—to give life their all. Dare to try new experiences, he advises.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” he said. 

Mr. Cornell’s message was especially effective because he has much in common with the kids of the Summer Day Camp. He is a product of the Claremont school district, too. Mr. Cornell variously attended Sumner, Condit and Mountain View elementary schools as well as El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School.

He is also a longtime friend of Mr. Lawshe, with whom he has shared a number of outdoor adventures. The two men gently ribbed one another while Mr. Cornell talked about his experiences BA (before accident) and AA (after accident).

“I’m pretty darn quick. I can keep ahead of Mike,” Mr. Cornell said of his snow-skiing skills.

“That’s because I let you,” Mr. Lawshe joked.

Their enduring friendship is further evidence that a disability need not signal the end of self-sufficiency and enjoyment.

“I go to the movies, I go to grocery stores, I pump my own gas,” he said. “I still get grumpy, I still cry, I still get stuck in spots. But I didn’t lose any friends after I got hurt.?No one said you’re not fun anymore.”

Mr. Cornell was clearly having fun the day before his talk, when he accompanied Summer Day Camp students to the Baldy Trout Ponds. He joined the kids in angling for wriggling trout in the fresh mountain air.

It is the kind of outdoor adventure for which Mr. Cornell lives. Among other videos, Mr. Cornell can be seen tandem skydiving, in a segment that aired on the local news in San Diego a number of years ago.

“It’s freedom, absolute freedom,” Mr. Cornell told the cameraman after his leap of faith. “It’s like I’m not paralyzed, I’m not handicapped. I’m enjoying myself. That’s what it’s all about.”

Ten-year-old Samuel William said he really enjoyed Mr. Cornell’s talk.

“I’ve never seen someone ski before that couldn’t walk. It impressed me,” Samuel said. “He’s super cool.

Demmo Zeleke, who will head for 7th grade at El Roble this fall, likewise endorsed Mr. Cornell’s cool-factor: “He really inspired me to do a lot of things, even though he’s disabled.”

—Sarah Torribio



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