As editor, Tim Gilmer knew sometimes a story would break so big that we should respond as quickly as possible — not an easy task for a magazine that plans articles a year in advance. Our staff would pore over story budgets to see if a feature could wait a month or so, or cajole the publisher to give us a few extra pages, and work overtime to get the info to our readers as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
“What I really liked about those times was the sense of excitement and energy we felt because we knew it was important and our community had a place in the larger story,” says Tim. “Like with 9/11. You and I realized it at the same time … what about our community? Where are our people? We realized we have a place here, let’s get it in the magazine.”
He’s referencing our coauthored piece, “Sept. 11, 2001: A Day to Remember,” [Nov. 2001] where we told the stories of two men, both quads, caught in the twin towers the day they fell. Tim told the heartbreaking story of Ed Beyea, a high-level program analyst for Blue Cross/Blue Shield who worked on the 27th floor. Beyea and his personal assistant/friend, Abe Zelmanowitz, perished for lack of appropriate rescue options. I told the happier tale of John Abruzzo, an accountant for the Port Authority who worked on the 69th floor. He lived because he had access to emergency evacuation equipment and coworkers who were able to use it to save him.
After telling that story, we told another one, “Unsafe Refuge: Why Did So Many Wheelchair Users Die on Sept. 11?” [Dec. 2001]. We looked at rescue equipment pros and cons, and ever since then have delivered strong reporting on emergency preparedness. Jean Dobbs’ “Eye of the Storm” [Dec. 2005] about how wheelchair users fared during Hurricane Katrina told harrowing tales of people separated from their wheelchairs, their service dogs, their homes and, yes, their lives. It shined a white-hot spotlight on the gaping holes in existing emergency preparedness plans that wheelchair users fall through.
Those holes still gape, and we still tell the tales, yet some progress has been made, and we tell those stories as well.
“I like to think we saved some lives,” I say, and Tim tells me just the other day he saw a sign for an EVAC+CHAIR in a building he was visiting — that’s the product Abruzzo escaped in, way back in 2001. So maybe we have.
All People are Our People
“My kind of advocacy has been in writing and information gathering, and communicating with my community,” says Tim. “But sometimes it breaks out into the broader community.”
That’s true, and it stretches beyond disaster relief. On the day Baghdad fell in 2003, Tim scored a coveted interview with anti-war activist Ron Kovic, of “Born on the Fourth of July” fame [see “Lifestyles of the Wheeled and Famous,”].
“What made that topical was we were entering into a war with Iraq that was controversial — many of us didn’t want to — and one of the main voices against the war was Ron Kovic’s,” recalls Tim. “I remember I tried to reach out to him and he had never responded. But the day I got him was when our forces finally invaded Iraq. I left a message and I said, ‘Well, I guess all your efforts are for nothing and this is the way I’m going to write the story unless you get back to me.’ I baited him, and he called right away and he was impassioned and said, ‘No, this is only the beginning.’” And he was right.
Lots of big news organizations had tried unsuccessfully to get an interview with Kovic, and Tim’s story became one of the few places Kovic’s words entered the public record. “CNN, people writing books got in touch with me to find out how we reached Kovic, it went on for years, mainly because the story jumped from NM to Alternet,” says Tim. “It was exciting because it was a big stage and one of our people was important to the idea our people shouldn’t be part of that war.” That’s our people — wheelchair users — and our people — Americans. All are our people.
“Just recently you wrote the story about how movies like Me Before You dovetail with real life when we saw that teenager Jerika Bolen took her life [“2016 People of the Year: The Resisters,” Jan. 2016], and also how ADAPT got involved in Medicare last summer, the whole legislative mess going on [Disabled Americans Saved Health Care, Oct. 2017],” says Tim. “Those are the kinds of stories that are exciting — when we break through the barrier and aren’t just preaching to the choir anymore.”
Correcting the Mainstream
My story on Bolen and Me Before You followed the NM tradition of asserting disabled lives are worth living. Tim nurtured that tradition, and his reporting on Christopher Reeve’s post-injury life and death comes to mind. “When he had a breakthrough and they were showing him in the swimming pool standing, I just had to go there. That was exciting because I got to travel and meet him [see story, next page]. “But when he died, the media blew it,” Tim sighs heavily.
“We have always been keen to follow coverage of our community by the mainstream because they’ve rarely gotten it right,” says Tim. “There was something screwy about how Reeve’s death was covered because I heard on my own local ABC channel, ‘In the end, quadriplegia was too much for him.’ But he was only 50-something and was in good shape, had the best care. After digging and finding my way to his actual nurse, I verified he died of shock, an allergic reaction. I tell people that’s what he died of, not of being a quad, because prior to his quadriplegia he had allergic reactions to a lot of things. He died from an antibiotic he’d taken before.”
Tim was the first, and one of the only, journalists to report Reeve’s death accurately. And why was that so important? “Mainstream media coverage furthered the myth that people are better dead than quadriplegic. It comes from the same place as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and misrepresenting who we are [‘Frankie, Maggie and Me: Inside the Million Dollar Maelstrom,’ April 2005],” says Tim. “It’s no fun to think that people devalue your life, and they do.”
This underscores our reporting on the death of new husband and father-to-be Tim Bowers, a hunter who was woken from a medical coma with the news he was now a quadriplegic, and then asked if he’d rather die.
“That story would not have been reported from our perspective if not for our entry into the online world,” says Tim. “What drove that was our Facebook page. Bob Vogel posted something about it, and it took off from there. The online emphasis on news gathering has forced us to kind of tailor our print mag to a certain time cycle but at the same time be up to date online, so that’s added a current dimension [‘How One Person’s Choice to Die Affected Our Community,’ Jan. 2014].”
It’s All of Us Together
In 2000, when Tim and I were both new to NEW MOBILITY, he mentioned his love of The Atlantic Monthly and a few similar magazines known for long, beautifully-written articles. I started picking up copies of Atlantic and then a variety of mags different from my usual choices so I could see what he meant. To this day, even in the world of clickbait, NM strives to deliver substantive well-written articles in print as well as expand our online offerings.
“We do a good job, and I mean we,” Tim says, when I shared this with him. “We’ve kept the long form alive while at the same time realizing the importance of the shorter form and online platforms. It all goes together.”
I tease Tim, calling him Mr. Internet, an inside joke since our stalwart champion of print has only recently embraced blogging and some aspects of social media. “It’s been difficult for me because for a while I thought it took away from print rather than adding to it,” he acknowledges. “Think of all the print mags that have gone down.”
We are one of the very few print magazines for people with disabilities left, but that doesn’t mean we can slack off. “There’s competition,” says Tim. “We need to stay up with everything online, it’s so critical now.”
But that’s really just an aside, since Tim has crafted us into a strong voice for the disability community’s place in our broader community — and that won’t change. After all, he says, “We have a collective consciousness on staff. No one takes off and does it on their own. It’s exciting, that process, when we all think it’s something we should cover.” It is all of us together — that interplay between our staff, readership and broader communities.
But for me, I believe I will probably always judge a breaking story’s merits by the principle of WWTD — What Would Tim Do?