By Jackson Sharp
At one point in time, Jarod LaFever was one of the most popular kids at Mustang High School. Parents liked him because he was considerate of adults, his peers liked him because he was outgoing and a bit of a daredevil, and to his closest friends he was someone they could rely on.
“I’ve known him since he was five,” said Susan Price, the mother of Jarod’s longest friend, Joshua Price. “He was the first one that wanted to dye his hair.”
He was known as Jarod the gymnast, Jarod the comedian, Jarod, the one who was always smiling and happy to see you. But after a failed backflip on a trampoline in the spring of 1998, everyone in his hometown would know him as Jarod, the kid in the wheelchair.
Jarod was near the end of his freshman year of high school, he was 15 and anticipating the freedom of a driver’s license that September, but the fall resulted in a broken neck that changed his entire life.
LaFever was in the ICU for 46 days, he only had to undergo one surgery but the damage to his spinal cord was permanent. The C4 and C5 sections of his vertebrae, which are located higher up on the spine, were injured. His handicap was ruled incomplete, meaning that his spinal cord was not totally severed and LaFever would still be able to feel parts of his body that were paralyzed, but he would never be able to walk again.
“The worst child that had to be put in a wheelchair, I’d say it was Jarod LaFever,” said Price. “But when Jarod got in that wheelchair, he was not depressed.”
Life had to go on.
“I think when I broke my neck it kind of made me realize that I had to something with my life,” LaFever said. “The only person that could make me do that was me.”
LaFever was still able to spend time with his friends, go to parties and eventually, he was able to earn his driver’s license for a van custom tailored to him. He received his Bachelor’s in finance from the University of Central Oklahoma and was accepted into law school, taking a corporate job at Dell instead as a regional sales representative.
“That first 10 years that I was hurt, I didn’t let anything stop me, and I didn’t see myself as someone in a wheelchair.” But despite his success, it was at Dell that LaFever started to feel that people didin’t notice much more than a quadriplegic.
“HR would call you in the office and go, ‘well does your disability have anything to do with your performance?’” After 3 years, LaFever was part of a massive company-wide layoff, taking unemployment and going back to school to achieve his Master’s degree.
When it came to finding love, LaFever had another hurdle to overcome: He was secretly gay.
“I was the kid that took up for the kids that were getting bullied on, and maybe part of that was because I didn’t want to get bullied on if anyone found out I was gay,” LaFever said. “Not only do they feel sorry for me that I’m in a wheelchair.” “But then to be in a wheelchair and be gay, it’s like ‘oh my God, what more could go wrong?’”
LaFever came out to his parents at 19.
Shortly after he began driving, LaFever had been taking himself to bars and clubs, gaining access underage by what he believes was bouncer’s remorse for his disability. Through friends he had made at these bars, he met an older man named Bill who quickly became his boyfriend.
LaFever’s mother had been questioning his sexuality for some time, asking him every now and then, but after an intimate card arrived at the house addressed to Jarod signed ‘B,’ his mother pressed to know the truth.
“She said ‘you’re gay, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘no mom, I’m not.’ Then she got on the bed and she started tickling me… and so I just broke down and I started crying and I let her know about my sexuality.”
Although his family has accepted him, despite for a few of his closest friends, LaFever is still mostly private about his sexuality.
“Except for my family and really [Joshua Price], you know, I don’t really hang a flag outside of my house,” LaFever said. “My dad’s always told me what I do in my bedroom is my own business.”
LaFever believes his parents felt more positive about his sexuality than they did his injury. He often worried that his mother would blame herself for his coming out, instead, LaFever believes she blames herself for not being at home the day he broke his neck.
“Everybody was telling me that I still would be able to do all of these things,” LaFever said. “My parents never wanted me to believe that I couldn’t achieve my dreams.”
Although he has tried to keep a good attitude about his disability, LaFever has struggled with bouts of depression, drug and alcohol use.
“After I got laid off from Dell, that was maybe the lowest point in my life, that’s when I started using.”
LaFever began using cocaine regularly, also earning two DUIs within a year of each other. He doesn’t blame the depression on his injury however, instead, he says getting drunk or high helped cope with the loneliness he still experiences today.
“It’s 21 years after I’ve broken my neck and I’m lonely. Can I find somebody that loves me, loves somebody in a wheelchair… that loves me, but also loves me because I’m gay?”
Today, LaFever has been 19 months sober… with a few drinks here and there. He lives alone in a house custom-designed to accommodate his immobility. He receives state assistance to pay for his morning and evening aides and maintains a part-time job at Lowe’s in his hometown of Mustang.
He also has returned to church, not because he is particularly religious, but it gives him an opportunity to socialize.
“I was an atheist for a while,” Jarod said. “It’s a lot easier to live with some kind of spirituality, [without it] it’s so easy to be angry about everything.”
LaFever still struggles with questioning whether people care about him because he’s Jarod, or because he’s in a wheelchair, but as time presses on, he’s been able to accept that the wheelchair is part of his identity.
“A lot of people get hurt and they’re angry, I’m not angry… I walked on this earth for 15 years,” LaFever said. “The more I get older, the more it does define me.”
According to the Shepherd Center, most people who suffer injuries high up on the spine like LaFever are incapable of living without 24 hour supervision. LaFever’s determination however means that he only needs someone to be with him in the morning to get him dressed and out of bed, and then someone to lay him down at night.
“He is the one that wants everybody to be their best and do their best, Jarod is an inspiration to so many,” said Susan Price.
At 37, LaFever’s optimism has helped him survive life in a wheelchair and realize that the future is bright, whether he can walk or not. With the support of his lifelong friends and family, LaFever fearlessly rolls toward the next chapter in his life with determination to live each day, not just as someone in a wheelchair, but someone who can see the hope in every new day.