Film maker, Tom Haig shares his Road Less Traveled, his love and work, his dreams and plans for making a lasting impact in the Third World.
“Travel, Entertainment and News, or Inspiration?” How does a magazine like PushLiving categorize the story of a man such as Tom Haig? “Infotainment!” he quips. We’re pretty sure that you’ll agree and want to learn more about this man of great vision, passion, and energy!
“Well, I hope I am not boring!” As a former athlete, acrobat, sports marketing events manager, editor, and now a documentary filmmaker (not to mention a fellow Sagittarius), being boring is simply not an issue for him. This is a good thing too,because he has a lot to say and do in order that he can continue to make an impact in the world concerning issues affecting all those who push for a living.
Tom has all the qualities and talents needed to make a great spokesperson for all those who need his voice. He is a dynamic and powerful speaker, a filmmaker, and a web developer. Partnering with his brother who is an influential doctor in the SCI/medical community, he has made remarkable journeys around the globe. He has sought out the remote corners where most people are not prepared or willing to travel.
“Most of the facilities that people (with disabilities) expect when they are traveling do not exist across most of the world—especially in Asia and Africa where there is no accessible infrastructure at all. You can complain or be well prepared!”
Best Travel Advice: “Don’t set unrealistic timescales. People in chairs have issues we can’t always control. If you miss the train to Delhi because of some incident, don’t sweat it. You’re still in India. Breathe it in. Delhi will be there when you get there.”
From Albania to Ghana to Bangladesh, he has seen the full extent of what the world has to offer, (59 countries, 20 in chair) not only to visitors with disabilities, but its own citizens. Ghana, for example, was “super advanced” with a large, disability association that was the most organized of any he has seen. The people there can get out and about, mostly due to the Government funding which makes this possible. “It is super inspirational as we visited regions, that were as remote as it gets, but had equipment and hand cycles. Every country you go to is completely different as far as their priorities go.”
Ghana owes theirs to the stability they maintained since they got their independence from England in 1957. They are a proud country with free and fair term elections since 1992 which have empowered the people. As a point of law, no presidents can rule for life. The whole of Western Africa refers to it as, “The Switzerland of Africa.” Because of this stability, they have been able to integrate their disabled community. Fifty people in chairs came to a group meeting, while people with disabilities are represented in government.
This representation has lead to 2% of all money taxed being allocated to the disabled. “Isn’t that crazy? ” It is the largest percentage of government allocation to disability programs known anywhere. Ironically, while the community integration is great, there was nothing available at the airport to get Tom onto the plane. He literally had to climb up the stairs. Contrast that to Albania, he sadly reports,where the people are sitting in houses and not able to get out at all.
Tom is now 53 years old. To stay fit and healthy, he is a hand cyclist. He had to take a year off due to an injury and health problems. He blew out a rotator cuff, causing a tear—not by the miles spent on bike, but in the process of getting on and off a low-bike into a chair. “It just popped hard one day and I couldn’t move my arm for a week. Then it happened again, same spot, but this time I had to completely rehab it for 6–7 months and gained 15 pounds.” Then it was bladder infections that plagued him. “I couldn’t get rid of them… tried every antibiotic, was on the last on list. Ends up the urologist discovered the infections were due to an overactive bladder. I tried meds to suppress spastic bladder and it worked! It was trial and error and I am so glad it was finally resolved.”
Now, Tom is back to riding hard, 4-5 days a week over an 18-mile loop or 35 miles on weekends and 50-75 miles once or twice a year. He has an active social life that keeps him busy in his spare time. He is also a musician, having written more than 30 songs and having, “…at least 100 more at the tip of my fretboard.” http://www.thcommunications.com/fun/fork/
His greatest heartbreak has been the loss of his best friend and companion, his Golden Retriever, Sydney. “She saved my life. She really did. As soon as I got out of the hospital she’s the first person I wanted to see. She mauled me as soon as I got out of the car and we were thick as thieves for the next 10 years. Miss the hell out of that pooch!”
Tom was in Portland, OR in ‘96 when he broke his back on a mountain bike while going through a red light. An elderly couple ran the stop sign and when he turned around to look back at them, he ran into a truck. From the Emergency Room, he first called his brother who just happened to be a world expert on spinal cord injuries, “It’s me this time!”
His brother Andy, who is the director of the University of the Michigan Spine Center, immediately hopped on a plane to get there. All of the doctors treating Tom were reading his brother’s medical papers, applying for his internships, and being denied… then he walks through the door.
This family connection lead to Tom’s working with the International Rehabilitation Forum (IRF) and most of his travel gigs.
His brother would go to speak, and Tom would just hop along. IRF is made up of a group of physiatrists and rehab doctors who volunteer to work in third world locations, trying to get chairs and make people healthy. It is with this group that Tom began to film the lives and conditions of those with disabilities around the globe. Besides the trips, he also runs IRF’s digital communications and is integral in organizing their World Conferences.
While a young man, Tom met and grew close to a French couple who became like a Mother and Father to him. When he called them from the hospital, the woman informed him that, in spite of his new condition, he was going to France for the summer. He left the hospital and they flew him over while paying for the entire trip. The husband also redesigned the house to make it completely accessible for him.
His friend is a contractor who had owned “the house of mirrors” at the carnival and when he wasn’t working as an acrobat he would take tickets for them at their booth. Upon his return, they even had the whole amusement park reconstructed so that he could work by taking tickets. Tom was very fortunate to have such love, support and accommodation coming from this “adopted family” and he stayed for 4 months. He is sure to see them every time he returns and is now a fluent, French speaker.
He says that France has improved in the last 5 years. New construction is accessible and the trains are more accessible too. Tom can now see himself living there. We will have to wait and see what fate has in store for him.
When asked what his goal in filmmaking was, he responded, “Looking to make a difference is huge. I had a horrible first five years in my chair. I felt completely alone, made bad mistakes which could have been avoided… Would love to have “freshies” know it gets a lot better. You’re gonna be depressed, but you will get over it.”
So far, Tom has racked up three 30-minute documentaries and more than 30 shorts. All can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/user/jama52
The documentaries are:
- Captain Crip Goes to Dhaka (French version: Capitaine Crip Va a Dhaka)
- IRF Visits Ghana
- IRF Visits Albania
One of the disability shorts is called,“HandisportSavoie!” He feels that his best so far is this short sketch about a wheelchair superhero!
Right now, he is doing all his work without funding or income (although the Doctors’ group, IRF pays his expenses and their own for their charity work.) He sometimes gets contract work from a university, doing 2-minute videos and quick production work. He is currently planning a new film and considering locations such as the Baltics or South America.
Tom has a lot to offer the world. His talent and experience can really impact the lives of those with disabilities everywhere. If you want to help him make his next movie and to continue working to bring issues of accessibility and community integration to those who need to hear the message, please share this story today.
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