Peer Support and Spinal Cord Injury: A Look at the Documentary “Re-Inventing the Wheel”

By Codi Darnell
August 17, 2021

People come into our lives at different times for different reasons. We connect with them based on mutual interests or shared experiences, forming relationships that help us to feel less alone in the world. Mothers need other mothers, fathers need other fathers, and people with spinal cord injuries (“SCI”) need other people with spinal cord injuries. And it is this type of connection – the peer connection – that is the driving force behind the documentary Re-Inventing the Wheel.

Edge Digital Media produced this award-winning documentary that showcases just how beneficial peer connections after SCI can be. Because most people don’t have a personal connection to someone with a spinal cord injury, the shift from an able-bodied to a paralyzed life often leaves you facing a loneliness like you’ve never experienced. It is easy to wonder if you are capable of adapting and it’s just as easy to question if it’s even possible.

Then you meet someone who is years out from the injury that left them paralyzed, and knowing them and seeing that they have endured the trauma and put in the work and adapted, it instills a bit of hope. They give you tips and encourage you to push your boundaries, all while understanding exactly what it is you’re going through. These are your peers.

Re-Inventing the Wheel brings focus to these connections by weaving the personal story of Dan and Colleen McLean together with that of an adventurous peer group the couple connects with while navigating their first year of life after Dan’s spinal cord injury. Through events, vacations and new activities, these men and their partners give Dan (the “new rookie”) and Colleen an up close and personal tour of all the things the SCI life can be. Because, as important as rehab is, it’s not living, and Stu Wymer says it best when he says, “Half of healing is being human.” And that is exactly what this peer group is for – learning how to be human again.

How, you ask? By just doing it. It can be incredibly intimidating to put yourself back out in the world after your injury – even the experienced members of the peer group talk about putting their “brave-face on” when attending events – but having the support of others who are experiencing it in the same way is invaluable. So, whether it was camping, wheelchair basketball or a Halloween trip to Vegas, Dan and Colleen just said “yes” and found their way as they went.

One of the main benefits of peer connections when you’re new at the paralysis game is the ability to see the potential for your life, and where you can get to. For Colleen, seeing all of the ways the veteran SCI-ers were living their lives gave her peace. She says, “It’s almost like a crystal ball for me.” Then, holding back tears, she states, “Let’s me see that Dan’s going to be okay.”

What I personally loved most about this documentary was that it didn’t minimize the struggle or glorify the resilience. It didn’t gloss over the difficulties of adapting to or living a life with a spinal cord injury nor did it sensationalize the activities anyone participated in. By following someone from the beginning of their injury while simultaneously showcasing men far into their SCI journeys, Re-inventing the Wheel manages to strike the perfect balance between struggle and triumph, humour and emotion. It is absolutely a must-watch film.

A world-premiere is being scheduled for September. While you wait, be sure to check out the trailer and follow their Facebook page for updates on the premiere.