It’s a clear, warm Sunday morning in Portland. Sandy Boulevard is nearly deserted and Tom Haig is cruising on his bicycle. He tucks into the teardrop position, thinking, This is awesome.
Suddenly, an elderly couple blow through a stop sign. Haig reacts quickly—but he’s pissed and, looking back at them, yells something unprintable. A second later, he returns his attention to his direction of travel. Yellow light! And a truck coming at him. Bicyclist and driver lock eyes. Both brake and Haig thinks, I’ve got this. That truck has enough clearance for me to lay it down and slide right under.
Then the unthinkable happens—his brake cable snaps. “I went headfirst into his grill,” Haig ’09 recalls. “At first I didn’t notice I was paralyzed. I put my hands on my legs and thought, At least I can feel them. But what I didn’t realize in the moment was that my legs were not feeling my hands. My feet were still clipped into my pedals and I tried to move—and then just stopped moving.”
That was 1996. Haig says, “Here’s the really crazy thing. My brother, Andy, is one of the world’s experts on exactly what happened to me. I’d called him lots of times because I used to be a professional platform diver. ‘Dude, I hurt my knee!’
“Not this time. ‘Um? Andy? I broke my back…’”
Andy Haig dropped what he was doing, caught a flight from Michigan to Oregon Health Sciences University, “and it was like the parting of the seas. All these docs there knew his research.”
Twenty-some years later, Haig has arms like tree trunks. His humor is infectious, his laughter raucous, and his spirit indomitable. The athlete, musician, videographer, and broadcast professional never stopped or even slowed down because of his paralysis. He maneuvers his wheelchair like a fine-tuned driving machine.
Which made going to broadcast school in Pullman interesting. In January 2007, when Haig arrived for the spring semester, it was pretty typical snow, freezing rain, ice storms, and wind chill. And, notoriously, everything was uphill both ways.
“I’d been warned by friends that Pullman was like San Francisco. But I’ve lived in the Himalayas. How hard can it be? But when I was in the Himalayas it was summer time. And this was ice and I was like, Oh my god, how am I going to get around? It was just paralyzing,” guffawing at his own pun.
After graduation, Haig got a note from his brother, Dan: the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile was looking for someone able to run a small community radio station. Haig raised his hand and got the gig.
“I fly over there and there’s a big problem with this radio station. It’s not on the highest point in the region but it’s on one of them because they want to put the stick way up in the air,” Haig explains, using radio engineer jargon to refer to the antenna. “The road to get up there was absolutely inaccessible by wheelchair.”
Every day he was picked up and driven to the station—and then carried up the 24 steps to the broadcast booth. “They had a nice set up. But the station was running on someone’s iPod playlist of a thousand Tibetan classical songs that just played over and over.”
Haig tried to get the locals to read the news in Tibetan but was met with resistance. He was told, “I can go to my mother to give her information, but not my mother’s friend.” The intricacies of social respect inhibited the locals too much to actually read the news on air. “They also thought their voices shouldn’t be so ‘big’ and heard by that many people. That was the Dalai Lama’s role.”
So Haig improvised. He scored an interview with novelist Alice Walker. He set up an open mic at a local cafe, then broadcast the recordings. “People from all over the world come to Dharamsala,” the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile, “so there are lots of musicians.”
After the 2015 Nepal earthquake that killed some 9,000 people, the world traveler was back in the Himalayas. His mission this time was to produce occupational therapy training videos for distribution across the country.
“It’s a five-day trip to get to the far end of the country,” he says, but the clinics there, with their patients in wheelchairs, badly needed current-practices information. The quake injured 22,000 people. One physician Haig met, Raju Dhakal, said his rehabilitation facility went from 30 patients to over 100 in a single day.
Haig has become an expert on disability culture. He’s done videos on French disability sports. He was alarmed by what he saw in Albania, where people in wheelchairs were largely ignored. In Ghana he was delighted to find one of the most advanced disability cultures he’s ever seen.
To date, Haig has visited 62 countries, something his family of seven siblings keeps track of. “I was in the lead for a while,” he says, “but then my Mom and Dad retired and now they’re crushing me!”