Tough Guy Gets a Wake Up Call
by Russell Schmidt
I grew up in East New York, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I was your typical tough guy. I hung with a pretty rough crowd and got into some really close calls. After high school, I was holding down jobs like driving tow trucks and cutting and installing glass. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what the future had in store for me!
In 1978, I was sent out on a job to replace a window in upper Manhattan. Due to a string of problems with the building structure, I fell four stories down onto the pavement and my life was changed forever. I had suffered a (T-4-5) spinal cord injury.
Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop
After almost a year of inpatient physical therapy (which is now unheard of!!!), I still didn’t realize what it meant to have a spinal injury. All I knew was that my world had been turned upside down. Returning to my childhood home was not an option due to wheelchair accessibility. Thankfully, I was able to get section eight housing and started learning how to live independently. Although I was receiving Social Security Disability and some money from Workers Compensation, I knew I needed to get back into the work place and find a job. They say idle hands are the Devil’s workshop and I found myself getting into some bad habits. I needed to find something to do.
Eventually, through NYC and NYS programs, I was able to find a great home that was accessible. During this time, I completed an outpatient therapy program and signed-up with Access VR (formerly known as OVR), a program to help prepare the disabled to re-enter the work force. Although a terrific program, it was geared towards clerical positions which I did not see myself doing so I went back to the same glass business where my accident had occurred and worked at cutting glass for picture frames and cutting shades.
One day, after searching through the classifieds, I landed a job with a medical alert company, monitoring calls by computer for people who had fallen and needed medical assistance. I was responsible for contacting the police and fire departments across the country to alert them of the individual situations that occurred. I enjoyed this job of helping and dealing with people and working on a computer. I stayed in this job for seven years.
Turning a Job into a Career
In 1993, I began working for NYC Transit, Paratransit Division, Department of Buses. This was the break I was looking for. My wife had just given birth to our first son and this was a job with a future and benefits that would help us build a good life. I learned as much as I could. If I did not know something, I would find out. I always say, there are no silly questions. A few years later, they offered me an opportunity to take over the Outreach and Information Center for Customer Relations and I ran with it. Up to this point, this was my biggest challenge at Transit. This new job gave me the opportunity to use my experience as a member of the disabled community to really help people access all NYC has to offer and hopefully make their everyday lives a little easier. As part of my job, I travel throughout the five boroughs to give speeches at various disability organizations, community boards, senior centers and work with the Department of Education and do bus demonstrations throughout NYC to ensure that people with disabilities feel comfortable using our public transportation system. I also have to deal with all the e-mails, voice-mails and other issues that came up throughout the day, back at the office so I get to keep up my computer skills. Some weeks, I am out of the office more than I am in, which can be challenging but I love it!
The month, after 23 plus years at NYC Transit, I am retiring and as I look back at my life, I am in awe of all that I have accomplished. I’ve been married to my childhood sweetheart (who stuck with me through this whole ordeal) for 34 years and we have three wonderful boys. I went from being the tough guy from the neighborhood to being a point-person for the Paratransit Division of the MTA and dealing with huge responsibilities. It wasn’t easy but I am so proud to have lived the life I was dealt and to have had a second chance! A higher power was looking over me and for that, I can’t be more thankful!