The international world has always been a draw for Jonathan Sigworth. A man with a C7 injury, he became paralyzed shortly after high school, but that didn’t stop him from returning to one country he particularly loved – India. In fact, taking the road less traveled opened Jonathan’s eyes to the needs of people with paralysis in India and beyond, and inspired him to found his own organization, More Than Walking. Read his story below.
Why He’s Fearless
After graduating from high school in Hamden, Connecticut, Jonathan took a gap year and decided to travel to northern India; a place where he could study world history and world religions in the Himalayan foothills, but the experience did not go as planned. “I was running late to a morning class and rode a bicycle instead of walking along a winding hillside footpath when I slipped and fell 70 ft unconscious next to the only hospital in the area.”
Jonathan was diagnosed a C7 complete quadriplegic and treated at the Indian Spinal Cord Injuries Centre in New Delhi ( a specialized hospital 8 hours away by ambulance from the site of this injury). After spending 5 weeks there, he returned to the US and had 2.5 months of inpatient rehab at Gaylord Hospital. Only 1.5 months of Jonathan’s rehabilitation was covered by insurance however. Friends and family donated to extend his therapy so he could learn how to roll over in bed and transfer independently into his chair before returning home.
After returning home and starting college, Jonathan decided to return to India again for more outpatient therapy. It was here where he discovered his calling – teaching others with spinal cord injuries independent living skills. Despite the fact he was still newly injured and learning skills himself, Jonathan found himself teaching other patients, as well as therapists, the skills he had learned in the US.
“I met paraplegics whose families had disowned them out of shame, and quadriplegics like me, capable of doing everything themselves with minor adaptations,” he says, “receiving only passive range of motion and waiting for strength and balance to improve.” “Few therapists and no patients there had seen the full rehab potential for a C7 complete quadriplegic, so that’s how I started giving my first peer mentor demonstrations.” These interactions are what inspired Jonathan to found More Than Walking.
After being in India for rehabilitation and helping others while there, he returned back to the US to continue his studies. Jonathan continued to travel back and forth to India several times while in college to volunteer at ISIC in New Delhi. He also discovered wheelchair rugby at this time (in Connecticut) which had a huge impact on him.
“My peer mentor and friend Andrew Vilardo introduced me to rugby when I was still an inpatient, but six months later, I was wheeling an armored rugby chair on the basketball court, smashing into my teammates, and getting mocked for how much help I still needed. It was the best incentive and support for independence that I could have had.”
Upon returning to India after getting involved in wheelchair rugby, Jonathan came to grips with the real differences and access to rehabilitation between the US and India. “I came back to the US wondering what I could do that could make a long term difference in a place like India where there were so many factors and barriers standing in the way of people with SCI. I believed that peer mentoring could be part of the answer.”
The following year, Jonathan returned to India to introduce wheelchair rugby. He was the first person to bring this sport to the country. And in 2009, he made a 20 minute documentary called More Than Walking that told the stories of several quadriplegic friends in India and the positive impact sports, like wheelchair rugby, had on their lives. It drives home how important things like living an active public life can improve happiness levels in someone with a spinal cord injury.
After graduating from Dartmouth University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s in English, Jonathan moved to Delhi to help start a transitional living program for people with spinal cord injuries, Empowering Spinal Cord Injured Persons (ESCIP). In this program, Jonathan lived side by side with 2 to 3 other quadriplegics, helping teach them independent living skills. Once they learned these skills, they made videos about them and shared them on their new Facebook pages and Youtube channels.
“It was incredible to see these friends of mine transform from not knowing how to do anything to becoming experts and sharing the knowledge they were learning day by day with dozens to hundreds of people living in India – all online. That’s when I really began thinking about how we could help encourage this kind of practical video sharing and virtual peer mentoring.”
In 2017, Jonathan co-founded More Than Walking with his wife Jessica, a physical therapist from Colombia, with the expressed intent to promote independent living after a spinal cord injury worldwide. “We do this by compiling peer mentor interviews and demonstration videos of independence skills, along with the therapist analysis videos of the most complex skills,” he says. These videos will then be put together into an online video course where they are shared with newly injured patients.
The course, when completed, will connect patients to local peer mentors, community resources like medical suppliers, support groups, and adaptive sports, and provides the opportunity for the newly injured to share their own story and progress back to life with others in similar situations around the world.
Jonathan is also quite proud of the sense of community his foundation fosters among their volunteers. “It’s been great to see how some mentor volunteers continue to attend monthly Zoom meetups and share their diverse perspectives on important issues of today.” As for the future of More Than Walking, he would like to produce a complete online video course for spinal cord injury independent living skills and establish a network of organizations around the world offering everything they need from peer mentoring to equipment and community support.
On the personal side of things, Jonathan and Jessica married in 2016, and he couldn’t be happier. “I love having someone so smart and caring by my side every day, and my number one goal is doing my best to be there for her as well.” Their goal as a couple is to travel more in the near future. “I haven’t traveled in a while and would love to be able to do that with Jessica and any future family we may have.”