HAMDEN, Conn. (AP) — Jonathan Sigworth of Hamden hasn't walked in more than six years — but that hasn't stopped him from running full-speed into a promising career as a filmmaker and screenwriter.
Having become paralyzed after a biking accident, Sigworth has since produced and directed a documentary, "More Than Walking," which follows the stories of four quadriplegic patients in India, their challenges and struggles, and is ultimately a story of hope.
His own story is part of the film, too. Sigworth was just 19 in Feburary 2006 when he was injured. He had been enjoying a gap year between high school and college and was taking religious studies classes in India. One morning, late to class, he was riding his bike to a Bible study class when he slipped off the mountainside and tumbled 50 feet into the rocks, falling on his head and breaking his neck.
The only reason he was able to survive was because he landed near a mission hospital, and two employees outside on a smoking break saw his fall and rescued him. His spinal cord was crushed between the fifth and sixth cervical bones, which means he is a quadriplegic, unable to control his legs, torso muscles and fingers.
This would be a devastating diagnosis for anyone, but Sigworth, who had been a trick unicycle rider and athlete, faced it with grace and acceptance. He remembers that, upon hearing he might never walk again, he told the doctor that his life's work, following the will of God, didn't depend upon his ability to walk.
After five weeks in South East Asia's only spinal cord rehab hospital, in Delhi, he returned to Connecticut and spent a few months at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, relearning how to do simple activities. It was there that he learned to get himself in and out of his wheelchair, dress himself and get exercise by playing wheelchair rugby. He returned to school that fall, attending Wesleyan University for two years.
Sigworth has no use of his hands or arms, but has some feeling in his wrists. He can twist them.
But he never lost sight of the idea that this accident would prove to be an experience that he could use to help others, and a year after his accident, he started an organization called Empowering Spinal Cord Injury Patients, and returned to India to see his friends at the spinal cord injury center.
He had met patients there from Afghanistan, Tibet, India, Nepal and Kashmir, most of whom considered themselves to have bad karma, and many of whom were rejected by their family and friends.
"I went back because I had made so many friends at the Delhi hospital while I'd been there, and I wanted to see them again," he says. "I wanted to help them.
"In India, there is a huge social stigma against people who have disabilities. They're not being given the training to become independent. I went back with the expectation that I could help others who were in my same situation but who hadn't had the training I was able to get in the United States."
Indeed, Sigworth acted as something like a therapist to the other patients, teaching them the skills for getting in and out of their wheelchairs, dressing themselves by wriggling on the bed, and of course, playing wheelchair sports to keep their strength up.
He was able to get a grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation to bring rugby wheelchairs on his subsequent trips back — and when he returned for the fourth time, it was with other college students and a photographer for the purpose of making a documentary. Ross Taylor, Austin Purnell, Chi Lee and Spencer Sheridan were part of the filmmaking team.
It took three months to make the film, a time that Sigworth describes as stressful. "It's very hard to make a film, especially when you don't know what you're doing," he says. "But we learned."
"More Than Walking" doesn't address the social stigma of quadriplegics directly, he says, but it highlights their struggles and their aspirations.
"I meant it to be a resource for hospitals, and to raise awareness of disability issues, but also I wanted the film to bring information about wheelchair rugby. I'd started a pseudo-team at the hospital, but I wanted other places to be aware of the sport."
Since then, wheelchair rugby is going on at a military paraplegic residential center, in the town of Pune, outside Mumbai.
After spending a year editing the film, Sigworth returned to school, at Dartmouth. His father, Fred, a professor of physiology at Yale, entered the film in various festivals, and it has won more than $6,000 in prizes. It's been translated into 20 languages, and three years after its making, Sigworth says he still gets emails from people saying how much it has helped and inspired them.
His organization, ESCIP, has been taken up as a project of the International Humanitarian Foundation, which allows tax-free donations to help bring money and support to the patients in India who are in need of so many supplies.
As for Sigworth, he's involved in a new project — writing a feature-length screenplay that takes place in India
and also addresses the social stigma of spinal cord injuries. When he graduates from Dartmouth next year, he hopes to move to India and live there full time.
"It's not so much that I'm drawn to the culture there," he says, "as that I feel that I have something very valuable to offer there that really isn't needed anymore in the United States. I can be of service.
"Here in the U.S., people with disabilities aren't treated so badly as they are there. I feel grounded there."
He acknowledges that the film's success has put a bit of pressure on him to do amazing things in his life, and that sometimes he feels that he's an inspiration to others, not because of his character, but just because of his circumstances.
"There's nothing really special about me," he says. "What I want to show is that there can be a gift from your greatest nightmare."
Sigworth will be showing his film and talking about his experience at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Best Video Performance Space, 1842 Whitney Ave., Hamden. Admission is free.
Online: http://www.escip.org .
Information from: New Haven Register
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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