One moment, Peter Cannistra was a ruggedly independent 20-year-old Kansas University junior. The next, he was completely dependent on others for survival.
In October 1987, a van carrying three KU debate coaches and six debaters to a tournament in Atlanta crashed near the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
The wreck caused when the van's driver swerved to avoid a deer killed one student and left Cannistra paralyzed from the chest down.
"If someone were to have told me the day before the accident that it would occur, I wouldn't have been able to handle it well. I'd have thought I would be bedridden," Cannistra said.
"But you discover things in yourself," he said. "I'm living independently now in a Kansas City condominium. A few years ago no one believed I could do that."
Although the experience has obviously changed some aspects of Cannistra's life, it didn't alter his primary education and career objectives.
CANNISTRA, who turned 24 last Sunday, finished his undergraduate degree in 1989 and will receive a master's degree at KU's commencement this Sunday.
He'll start work in July as a financial analyst for Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.
Fred Madaus, director of the School of Business placement office, said he's astounded by Cannistra's ability to cope.
"At 20, he was leading a typical life," Madaus said. "All of a sudden he was in a wheelchair. I'm amazed. He's so well adjusted."
Cannistra said it was a long road from the Nashville, Tenn., hospital where he was taken after the wreck, to graduation ceremonies this year in Lawrence.
There were four months of intense physical therapy for the New York native at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine in New York City.
UPON HIS return to KU, he took up debate again. But the mental contests didn't hold the same allure.
"I was less motivated to do debate. I didn't have the same kind of fire," he said.
Nevertheless, in his senior season Cannistra and his partner finished fourth at the national tournament.
He received a bachelor's degree in political science and economics in 1989 and enrolled in KU's graduate business administration program.
Over the past 3 years, Cannistra said, a lack of independence and mobility has been the greatest obstacle.
"The biggest adjustment, at least initially, was having to rely on other people to do everything. There is a huge learning curve. As I learned things, it got easier," he said.
One of the biggest changes occurred when he learned to drive a hand-operated car a year after the wreck. At that moment, he regained freedom of movement.
HOWEVER, some buildings at KU and in Lawrence are still hard for people in wheelchairs to enter. And Kansas winters are a problem, especially the snow.
Cannistra said invisible barriers remain between the physically impaired and those who are not.
"The barrier on me is to go out of my way to prove I'm not disabled, that I'm the same person," he said.
Cannistra said some people are hesitant to interact with wheelchair users.
"Act normally," he suggested.
Since the accident, Cannistra has reached several conclusions about being physically impaired.
"Don't accept any limitations," he said. "The burden is on you, the newly disabled, to prove to everybody else that you are the same person."
No one should consider himself or herself a second-rate person with second-rate abilities, he said.
"If you trade bonds and make $1 million in a quarter, it doesn't matter if you are Hispanic or disabled. Things are based on performance."