Last week I came across a story that took a few days to process: a man in Decatur, Indiana fell from a tree while hunting, and when doctors gave him the option, he chose to end his life. He chose to leave behind his expectant wife instead of living with paralysis. I grappled with how I could write about a story that is so complicated. Timothy E. Bowers left countless people in his wake. I have no doubt that his loved ones are reeling from the unexpected loss of a thirty-two-year-old man, and I don’t want to add to the Internet cacophony that might exacerbate their pain. But I have to talk about Timothy’s situation, because it shines light on our flawed conceptions around disability.
Timothy Bowers fell sixteen feet out of a tree and crushed his C3, C4, and C5 vertebrae. He did not sustain any brain damage. He would possess all of his cognitive faculties after recovery, but he would become a quadriplegic. Without question he would never walk again, and wouldn’t be able to hold the child him and his wife were expecting. According to an article on People’s website, there was a chance he would live in a medical facility for the rest of his life.
It was absolutely Timothy’s choice whether he wanted to live or die, and this piece is not a critique of his choice. It isn’t. Every person deserves the right to choose whether they live or die.
“The last thing he wanted was to be in a wheelchair,” said the now widowed Abby. Here is where able-bodiedness is unmistakable. We live in a culture where people assume that life in a wheelchair is unfulfilling, without hope, and without joy. Abbey is also quoted saying, “Even if he decided the other thing, the quality of life would’ve been very poor.” Without specifics about Timothy’s prognosis, it’s not fair to critique her statement, but her sentiment is a common one: the quality of life for people with disabilities is dismal relative to able-bodied people.
We live in a capitalist, patriarchal society, where bodies are valued for their output. A person who can’t produce is not valued, and this concept is reiterated via media depictions, the language surrounding disability, and institutional barriers. The landscape becomes more fraught when notions of masculinity enter the picture (read: stereotypes about the virulent, breadwinner, who is reliant on no one, and doesn’t hurt from anything).
If you read between the lines of the story presented in the media, it is easy to see possibilities for a rich, fulfilling life. Timothy was a man of great faith, who relied on those beliefs to make his end of life decision. Perhaps he could have ministered? Maybe not in the “traditional” sense, but maybe via an interpreter. Timothy may not have been able to hold his child, but he could have witnessed their growth. He may not have hunted again, but he could have found new hobbies.
The bottom line is this: living life with a disability does not preclude you from happiness, and maybe if we lived in a society that believed that, Timothy E. Bowers would be alive today.