As I’ve written in the past, one of the things that makes the trucking industry so compelling to write about is its people. The Canadian trucking industry is comprised of hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life. And practically every one of them has an interesting story to tell.
Let me introduce you to Mike Dingler, an owner/operator with International Truckload Services (ITS) in Belleville, Ont. Mike works the nightshift, running drop-and-hook domestic loads between ITS in Belleville and customers in the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and Brantford to the west and Cornwall and Brockville in the east. What’s extraordinary about Mike, is that he does all this despite being confined to a wheelchair.
I recently spent an evening with Mike, as we ran a load of paper from ITS’s Belleville yard up to the space it leases from Maritime-Ontario in Brantford and then back to Belleville with an assortment of general freight. I’ll be telling his story in the June issues of Truck News and Truck West. But when I have a good story to tell, I have a really hard time keeping it to myself – even just temporarily – so I’ll share a few details with those of you who frequent this blog.
Mike is 44 years old and has always been mechanically inclined, spending his younger days tearing down engines, transmissions and other components and then carefully reassembling them. He lived on a farm in Durham Region and was comfortable operating heavy trucks and farm equipment from a young age. At the age of 20, he fell asleep while driving a pick-up truck with a load of wood and careened 151 feet off a dead-end road before a large tree abruptly stopped the truck in its tracks.
“I never broke one bone in my body but it tore the main aorta from my heart. I don’t remember anything,” he told me. Mike was airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital and once stabilized, sent to the renowned Lyndhurst Centre for rehab. They were to teach him how to use his wheelchair, but after several weeks of being put off by doctors, Mike called a buddy to come pick him up. He left the rehab centre and learned how to get around in the wheelchair on his own.
Since then, Mike’s been getting by on a $1,000 monthly disability cheque and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He decided he wanted to earn a better living, get off disability and improve his lifestyle. So, he did what most of us would consider unthinkable and decided to pursue a career in trucking.
Of course it wasn’t easy. There are few, if any, paraplegic truck drivers out there, so off-the-shelf driving aids weren’t readily available. Mike found a 2004 Freightliner with a Meritor automatic transmission on Kijiji and traded his pick-up truck for it in a straight-up swap. He then built his own hydraulic lift system to get him in and out of the truck and installed controls allowing him to work the throttle and brake by hand. Mike then had to get the entire system approved by the MTO.
Next up, he needed a job. Mike went to work with Musket Transportation but when the contract he was serving went away, he moved on to ITS. Chris McMillan, field operations manager with ITS, told me Mike quickly proved his abilities during the road test.
“Belleville has some really interesting corners and after the first hard right-hander at the bridge downtown, I knew that Mike would be a great addition to the ITS family,” Chris told me. Still, the company wasn’t planning to treat Mike any differently than any other company driver or owner/operator. Nor did Mike want special treatment.
Mike’s been working at ITS for a couple months now and by all accounts is doing a great job. He does his own pre-trip inspections and even more remarkably, most of his own maintenance, including oil changes. He has a forklift in his shop to which he’s attached a platform to the forks so he can raise himself up to whatever height is necessary to perform maintenance and repairs. He has also welded together two creepers, so he can get underneath the truck without his feet dragging along the ground. It’s a good thing too, as repairs have been plentiful. In his first weeks with the truck, the starter, clutch and air compressor all needed replacing. Welcome to life as an owner/operator, Mike.
Mike can couple and uncouple the trailers, but many yards park the trailers so closely together that he can’t get to the landing gear in his wheelchair. He has hired his cousin to come along with him to handle coupling and uncoupling. His assistant also earns his keep by running into any offices that aren’t wheelchair-accessible to pick up the required paperwork.
What’s unique about Mike is not only the fact he’s a paraplegic truck driver, but also the fact he goes about his business with a consistently positive attitude. He’s thrilled to be on the road and realizes he’s lucky to be alive. He hopes to one day get daytime work with ITS, but he’ll bide his time and earn it just like everyone else has to. He really doesn’t feel like anyone owes him a thing. His outlook is refreshing and invigorating.
This blog was intended to be a short glimpse into Mike’s life – a teaser, really – for the feature coming out in the June issues of Truck News and Truck West. I failed to keep it short, but believe me, I could go on much longer and I will do so in the print edition. This is a story you don’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, I want to hear your stories. Do you know any professional drivers with disabilities? How have they overcome the challenges that are inherent to the job?
James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies. All posts by James Menzies