A Life in Full

by Jeremy Smerd
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Illustration by Irena Roman

Joshua Prager ’94CC walks with the aid of a cane and a brace to a bench outside Hartley Hall. He has shaggy hair, a muscular jaw, and piercing blue eyes. A scar remains over his Adam’s apple, where a ventilator once connected to his trachea. He sits with his stronger leg crossed over his atrophied left side, just as he did when he lived in the dorm. Back then, he kept his wheelchair as far away as possible so that girls would think he was just another kid who could throw snowballs on the quad. Once, when an elevator broke, a professor said that he should be carried up the stairs to class by football players.

Prager had had enough. He wrote his first article in a November 1991 issue of the Spectator criticizing Columbia’s shortcomings in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed a year earlier. Most buildings on campus were not accessible to wheelchairs, and the ramps that did exist were so steep that they were more useful to skateboarders. Two days after Prager’s piece appeared, the school moved swiftly to accommodate the needs of disabled students.

Now his cane, worn down under the crook by his calloused thumb, is never far from him. He’s lived longer disabled than not. “My disability is a part of who I am, and I’m very comfortable with that,” he says. “I want my cane beside me even if I don’t need it.”

Twenty-three years ago, Prager was just becoming acquainted with the power of his youthful body. Thousands of pushups had widened his chest. He had grown five inches in eight months and could leap for a rebound and touch the rim. He felt confident in his future. Invincible. He would be a doctor, like his dad. He was nineteen.

But first, a trip to Israel to study Talmud at yeshiva. 

On May 16, 1990, Prager boarded a bus in the religious Jerusalem suburb of Kiryat Ye’arim. He thought it was a public bus, but it had been rented by a family. They said, sure, he could come along.

The bus approached a bend in a steep descent outside Jerusalem. Barreling downhill behind them came a large truck. The driver of the truck failed to brake. The vehicles collided. Prager’s neck snapped back over his seat and he was flung limply across rows with a force “as loud and violent as a bomb,” he would later write. In an instant, he went “from the musk of the young male to the impotence of the quadriplegic.”

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