Skip to Main Content

At the heart of disability, a “positive perception of self”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Summer


Galen Buckwalter, Ph.D., agreed to film life from his wheelchair to show that a disabled person is neither a hero nor a victim, just an ordinary person doing his best to shape a satisfying life. At the least, Buckwalter thought, the film would “normalize” him and the other wheelchair users in the documentary. It would help viewers feel more at ease around people in wheelchairs.

Rolling managed to do much more than that, says Buckwalter. “We went further,” says the California research psychologist, who lost the use of his legs in a 1973 diving accident. “We presented an analysis of what is at the essence of disability.” That essential element, common to all people with disabilities, he says, “is the need to integrate dependence into our daily lifestyle, in a way that’s egosyntonic—consistent with a positive perception of self.”

The award-winning film, produced by Yale internist Gretchen K. Berland, M.D., shows three lives lived at odds with a culture that teaches that “we have to be lone guns.” “My reality is I’m dependent on a wheelchair,” says Buckwalter in a telephone interview last winter. “That doesn’t change everything, but it changes quite a bit. ... For me to exist—to borrow a phrase—I need a village.”

Buckwalter used the camera Berland gave him to record both pleasant and distressing moments: he banters with friends around a campfire, and he teases his wife, Deborah, for choosing schmaltzy music when they share a glass of wine. He shows himself reconnoitering the parking lot outside their Pasadena loft to avoid dog feces as he rolls out to his car.

In the scene that he found most difficult to film, he muses about the increasing pain in his shoulders, arthritic from years of lifting himself in and out of his chair. At age 47, Buckwalter faces the prospect of switching to an expensive motorized wheelchair. The change will be a blow to his self-image. “Even after I got hurt, I still considered myself a very physical man,” he says. “I viewed my injury as very static. It wasn’t going to change as I aged.” But, he now acknowledges, “being disabled, you age in dog years.”

Buckwalter joined Berland’s documentary project when she was a Robert Wood Johnson clinical scholar at UCLA, looking for wheelchair users to collaborate on her film. The two met through a fellow in Berland’s group who was getting help on his project from Buckwalter, who works at the Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group developing tests for age-related cognitive changes.

Buckwalter almost died last summer when medication he took to prevent blood clots caused a catastrophic gastrointestinal bleed. As he struggled to survive, Buckwalter recalls, “I was just trying to get in touch with what was good about me. … I think it was one of those times where if I didn’t really want to live, I could have gone. And I really did want to live.”

As he regains his strength, he reports that he is “feeling almost ecstatic at being alive and being engaged. … Life is very bright right now, and Rolling is part of that brightness for me. I literally feel blessed to be part of this. Because when I watch Rolling, I feel like I’m part of something much bigger than me: I think it succeeds at portraying disability as a situation that does not at all impede having a richly rewarding life.”

Galen Buckwalter, who was paralyzed in a diving accident 30 years ago, says that Rolling demystifies and normalizes the experience of wheelchair users: “I think it succeeds at portraying disability as a situation that does not at all impede having a richly rewarding life.”

Vicki Elman, who has multiple sclerosis, exercises in a scene from Rolling that shows her when things are going well. The film also conveys the intense frustration Elman experiences when her motorized wheelchair breaks down.