The View from My Seat archives


How I got stuck in my broken van on I-45

Being disabled can make a bad situation even worse


By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

For me, and I suspect others with disabilities, needing help can be humiliating.

I am not talking about needing assistance with minor things. I surely don’t mind folks opening doors for me or helping out by reaching the top shelves in grocery stores.

What I find humiliating is when my disability inconveniences others and my disability becomes a spectacle.

That is exactly what happened one evening on I-45. I shudder just writing about it.

“The gas pedal is stuck. I can’t slow down,” my wife gasped.

She was at the wheel of the used van we had purchased to accommodate my disability and my wheelchair. Fully-equipped ramp vans for the disabled can cost twice as much

as the van itself. We opted for an older van in hopes I would recover and we wouldn’t need it for long.

No time is good for a vehicle failure, but this timing could not have been worse. We were in rush-hour traffic heading out of downtown on the Pierce Elevated.

I had just returned to work that week after learning I would probably spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Our plan called for me to eventually drive myself, but she was doing the chauffeur duties until I gained more confidence.

I was sitting directly behind her in my wheelchair when I heard her. To make matters more terrifying, a toddler granddaughter was in the far back seat.

“Shift to neutral and turn off the ignition,” I yelled, “and pull over onto the shoulder.” Luckily, we were in the right-hand lane. My wife expertly brought us to a stop on the shoulder.

We were shaken but safe, if you consider it safe being on a Houston freeway during rush-hour with cars whizzing by in the darkness.

We called 911 and waited with fingers crossed, hoping other motorists could see us. Believe it or not, things were about to get worse.

The police arrived and were followed by a wrecker driver. It was then I realized we had another problem. To exit the van in my wheelchair, I push a button that deploys a ramp from the passenger side of the vehicle. Then I simply roll out.

I couldn’t this time, however. The passenger side of the van was up against a concrete wall, making it impossible to extend the ramp. I was trapped.

After explaining the situation to police, they courageously stepped into Pierce Elevated traffic and stopped cars in all lanes. Then they parked their cars in such a way as to shut down the freeway.

The wrecker driver then towed the van, with me in it, to the middle of the freeway, where I deployed the ramp and exited.
The next challenge was getting me into the wrecker. I am 6’5” and weigh about 220. Luckily, the wrecker driver was huge. He picked up this then 65-year-old like a baby and carried me toward the wrecker.

For the first time, I could see the headlights on hundreds of stopped cars and hear the honking horns from frustrated drivers. Many Houston commuters were going to be late for dinner this night.

What a mess. All because of me. All that was missing was the six o’clock news.

Now, six years later, my wife and I have different takeaways from the incident. She quite rightly remembers we could have all died. I remember the humiliation.

I have since read the fear of humiliation is a major reason many disabled persons refuse to venture out of their homes.

I have tried hard not to let the I-45 incident change my life. We did, however, change to a newer van.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at