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Lawyers jump for a cause

|Written By Tim Shufelt

As a quadriplegic, lawyer David Shannon knows what it’s like to have forces working against him.

{mosimage)Still, he chose to subject himself to some rather potent forces of nature by plunging out of a plane in the middle of the stratosphere earlier this month.

Along with his friend Christopher Watkins, who suffers from arthritis, the pair of Thunder Bay lawyers completed a potentially dangerous high-altitude skydive to raise awareness about people living with disabilities.

“There’s this total dichotomy,” Shannon says of the jump.

On the one hand, he tried to take in the spectacular scenery. On the other, he was faced with “the most vicious wind you’ve ever felt, and you’re hoping your chute is going to open. Hoping that every risk that is present doesn’t come true.”

Having jumped from more than 8,000 metres in the air, Shannon broke the record for a skydive by a quadriplegic, according to Watkins.

In another historic first, earlier this year he became the first person with quadriplegia to reach the North Pole.

Next year, the pair is planning to trek in the other direction, all the way to the South Pole.

The point of their feats is in part to demonstrate the capabilities of people with disabilities, Watkins says.

“People are capable of accomplishing great goals regardless of the challenges they have,” he says. “I think he’s a great role model.”

But the ultimate goal is to raise money for a scholarship program for students with disabilities, Shannon says.

After a lifetime of personal accomplishments, he is now turning his focus outwards.

“I’m not that interested anymore in just fending for myself,” he says.

He points out that students with disabilities are twice as likely to opt out of post-secondary education.

But the crucial time to reach out is the early years of high school, when students with disabilities are at the greatest risk of dropping out, he says.

“They feel isolated socially. They will get disengaged and lose interest.”

He adds he’s not limiting the scope of his vision for a scholarship program. “I’d like to see thousands of students benefit over several years.”

And he says he hopes some of those same people will be inspired by his jump.

Shannon and Watkins went outside New Orleans for their high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) jump traditionally performed by military personnel.

HALO jumps, however, are complicated and can be risky due to the lack of oxygen at the dizzying heights.

“After 15,000 feet, there simply is not enough oxygen to breathe,” Watkins says.

So jumpers must wear oxygen tanks and heavy gear to protect against the -60 C air.

Also, all nitrogen must be flushed from the bloodstream; otherwise, the ascent can cause decompression sickness, which can be fatal.

“Essentially, the reverse of a deep scuba dive is in play,” Watkins says.

During the ascent, the pair breathed in pure oxygen to rid of all the nitrogen. At about 8,200 metres, however, one of the instructors lost his oxygen supply and went unconscious.

The plane had to quickly dive to reach an area with breathable air.

The jolt of the plunge, however, dislodged the tube supplying Shannon’s oxygen.

“So I started to suffocate, too,” he says. His supply was restored, but the jump was aborted.

The two lawyers then discussed whether they should give up on the jump altogether.

“David decided to go back up; he’s a very brave guy,” Watkins says.

So the pair got in the plane a second time. But the oxygen problems continued.

Shannon lost his supply a few more times. Watkins, too, had breathing problems and he began to lose consciousness before they both jumped out the plane’s door.

Watkins says he dropped for about 3,000 metres before he fully regained his senses.

Dropping in a free fall for more than two minutes, the jumpers hit speeds in excess of 200 kilometres an hour, Shannon says.

 “It’s an important awareness raiser,” he says. “This accomplishment is a signal that we’re serious.”

The pair has since returned to Thunder Bay where Watkins practises criminal, real estate, civil, and criminal injuries compensation law.

Shannon received his law degree from Dalhousie University’s law school and later attended the London School of Economics for further studies. He is currently pursuing a doctorate from the University of Leeds.

He has received various honours throughout his life, including the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his work on human rights and community service. He was also the founding chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Council of Ontario and a member of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. His practice is concentrated mainly on administrative law.

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