Music connects people in a way that is often surprising. When I first met Didier (DJ) Cassagnol at an NYC Spinal Holiday Party a few years ago, I connected with him right away. It turns out that DJ and I had much more in common than merely both being in wheelchairs. We bonded over the music that was playing and reminisced about old-school hip-hop; a passion that we both share. Turns out DJ is an actual disc jockey. Ironically, he was nicknamed “DJ” when he was a young kid way before his disc jockeying days. Besides both being music lovers, I soon discovered that DJ, like me, is also a public speaker. He speaks to teenagers about his life experiences and overcoming adversity. When DJ told me that he was a full-time police officer, it blew me away. I had never met a cop in a wheelchair before. I was reminded of “Ironside,” a TV show from the 60’s and 70’s starring Raymond Burr, who played a paralyzed detective and used a wheelchair. Ironside was just fiction, while DJ is the real thing. It was clear to me that DJ had an incredible story and I was intrigued to find out more. I knew there were many important lessons to be learned from this extraordinary person.
A Man of Many Talents
I called DJ this spring to interview him for the NYC Spinal newsletter. DJ works in Hempstead, NY. When I called, he was walking his fourteen month old Pitbull, Mellow. DJ lives in West Hempstead with his girlfriend, Tiffany. They live on the first floor of his house and his older brother, Sydney, lives on the 2nd floor. In addition to his career and full social life, DJ has many interests and hobbies such as sports, music, and traveling. His most memorable trips were to Aruba, Paris, Jamaica, Haiti and Toronto. His taste in music includes a blend of old-school hip-hop, Caribbean, and Latin Music. When asked which artists he would include in his favorite playlist, DJ stated “Nas, Sweet Mickey, and Marc Anthony.” DJ played football and ran track in high school, and continued to play recreational basketball and softball upon graduating. After his injury, DJ played wheelchair softball with the Aviators and Nassau Kings.
Throughout the interview, DJ and I spoke about life before and after injury, and how they can be so different from one another. I have been injured for over 19 years, 14 of which have been spent working as an educator. As a wheelchair user and as a teacher, I knew right away there were so many valuable lessons to be learned from DJ’s story; a story that will inspire and hold meaning for all people, disabled or not.
Growing Up with Big Dreams
DJ grew up in Hempstead, the youngest of 3 boys. His father passed away when he was 12, and DJ’s mother, Mary Alice, worked hard to provide for the family. DJ has always been very close with his mother. After graduating from high school in 1999, he spent time at Malloy College, Job Corps, and Devry studying computer service tech and telecommunications management. However, DJ’s dream was always to be a policeman. He was so excited when he was called in for training in 2005 with the Nassau County Police Academy. DJ worked as a police patrolman for about five and a half years. He loved his work, especially interacting with community members. His favorite memory is when he responded to a suspicious phone call about a bag left somewhere. After investigating, DJ found a baby girl in the bag. This baby was eventually adopted by his younger brother and his wife. Life was going well for DJ, he was engaged to his fiance at the time, Erica. In 2009, he bought the house in West Hempstead that he currently lives in today.
One Moment Changes Everything
DJ was Injured on August 31st, 2011. He was leaving his best friends’ house and he pulled up to a stop sign on his motorcycle. As always, he looked left and then right as he stopped. Eleven days later DJ woke up at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. He had been hit from behind and left on the road for dead. As a result of the traumatic accident, DJ was hospitalized for a month and seven days, where he was treated for a T1 and T2 spinal cord injury that resulted in permanent paralysis. Looking back on that time, DJ feels fortunate that he did not experience depression due to the injury, as most patients inevitably do. Nevertheless, the life he once knew was changed forever.
Like most people that suffer from SCI, DJ was forced to make changes to his home. A huge ramp was purchased so that he could enter and exit the house independently. DJ moved his bedroom from the second floor to the first floor of the house and wood flooring was added to the first floor to make wheeling around easier. Most importantly, the first floor bathroom was renovated to accommodate his needs. DJ had to pay out of pocket for these modifications, and they were not cheap. Thankfully, he had some help from his colleagues at the police department.
In addition to the challenge of making accommodations to his home, DJ also experienced challenges in his personal relationships due to his injury. Before being inured, DJ and his fiance, Erica, had been living together for about a year and were together when DJ suffered his spinal cord injury. Although they did stay together in the immediate aftermath of the injury, eventually it is what influenced them to grow apart. The stress of the situation and the uncertainty of what DJ’s life was going to be like had a huge impact on both of them. Unfortunately, strain on romantic relationships is very common for all people that experience spinal cord injuries. The adversity that SCIs are forced to face is intense and can be all consuming. DJ and Erica split up. Although it was not easy, in time DJ was able to summon up the strength needed to move forward in life, and start a new chapter.
Driving = Independence
When I asked DJ to describe some of the biggest challenges that he faced after his accident, he said that not being able to drive immediately was very difficult, as it highlighted the immense loss of independence that initially comes with SCI.
Once he was able to drive on his own, he gained back some of that independence and sense of “normalcy”. Another challenge was his career. DJ had to fight for two years to be able to return to work. Because of his disability, DJ could no longer be a patrol officer. The police department was trying to find the right type of work for DJ, and unfortunately there were forces within and outside the organization that were working against him. DJ was fortunate to have the support of friends and family during this uncertain time. More importantly, DJ was able to help himself through his adversity. In order to keep busy, DJ started a disc jockey/party business while he waited for his case to be settled at work. In time, DJ was able to return to work as a full-time policeman; a job that he is passionate about and still holds to this day.
Dating & SCI
Adjusting to social life was another major challenge for DJ. Splitting up with his fiance was particularly painful, as he had always envisioned having a family and children; he no longer knew if that would be a possibility for him. DJ was was unsure what his social life would be like with SCI. Though he did his best not to give into feelings of self-pity, he did have fears about the future. Yet, he turned his fear into motivation and determination to get out, be social and, eventually, to date again. DJ started online dating, and explained that it was not always very easy for him. He remembers experiencing racial discrimination when he dated as a teenager, before his injury. DJ likens that unfortunate experience to dating with a disability. “It sucks to be pre-judged on your outside. People would say how great DJ is, how positive, positive, positive, but… and that but always was about the disability.” Despite the challenges of trying to put himself “out there” and dating with a disability, DJ continued to pursue online dating. He put his picture and disability in his profile. He is not into “catfishing” and wants the people he meets to portray themselves honestly as well. Overcoming the challenges of online dating gave DJ the confidence to be himself when meeting people in other areas of life, and eventually allowed him to be comfortable in his own skin; a very difficult thing to accomplish for SCIs. Within a few years, DJ met his current girlfriend Tiffany, a makeup artist, at a bar in Queens and they hit it off right away.
DJ has been able to handle the many challenges of living with a spinal cord injury on his own, though he did receive some help from his SCI friends along the way. He recalls experiences at Kessler Rehab in West Orange and St. Charles in Albertson as both being very positive. He even took part in the SCI Support Group at St. Charles, which DJ described as “different, cool and interesting.” DJ connected with NYC Spinal around 2014. He believes that NYC Spinal does a great job bringing people with SCI together to celebrate life and makes it a point to attend NYC Spinal’s Annual Mardi Gras Fundraiser and other chapter events. DJ especially loves seeing newly injured people out celebrating.
Life is still full, you can do all the things you want to do. You can still go out, work, go to school, drive, be in a relationship… (there is) a world of opportunities out there.
I asked DJ what he thought was most important for someone who is newly injured to know. He responded, “life is still full, you can do all the things you want to do, offer them comfort, it may be a little different than before, but you can still go out, work, go to school, drive, be in a relationship… world of opportunities out there.” DJ went on to share that too many people give up when something challenging happens and it does not need to be that way. He stated, “things are going to get tough at life, you need to stick to it to deal with adversity. Nothing lasts forever, you will have down times, but you will get through it by staying strong and true to yourself.”
Disabled isn’t UN-abled
DJ and I spoke a lot about the many challenges that the SCI community faces, one of them being how sometimes able bodied people do not seem to respect and or appreciate that someone with a disability is a real person too. DJ shared, “If you go out to a function, people will assume that someone had to help you get to a social outing or question why you would be out at all.” DJ wants to say to them, “Why wouldn’t I be out? You are out, I am out. I don’t understand how some people feel that you need assistance in order to live your life.” It is often the case that able bodies people have misconceptions about people with disabilities; that just because you have a disability, you have to be dependent on others for everything. In reality, many people with disabilities are extremely independent and able to do most things that other people do.
Things are going to get tough at life, you need to stick to it to deal with adversity. Nothing lasts forever, you will have down times, but you will get through it by staying strong and true to yourself.
I think that one of the reasons why I connected with DJ so well was that we were able to see each other as real people – guys who likes good music, sports, and traveling as opposed to someone who just has a disability. DJ thinks “people need to realize that SCI’s are people too, with thoughts, feelings, just like everyone.” Even with all the challenges and adversity that DJ has faced in his life, he was able to remain strong, positive and persevered. Indeed, something we can all learn from – disabled or not.