Chris Gabler

Chris Gabler had it all. Having just turned 22, the aspiring firefighter was getting a degree at Los Angeles Valley College. He’d already volunteered for a year-and-a-half at a North Hollywood fire station and was just starting to train with the Pasadena fire department. He thought about joining the military.

In a second, all his dreams were gone.

“My whole life completely changed due to an unfortunate accident,” Gabler says. A brain-stem injury while snowboarding left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“I felt that I had lost my life,” he remembers. “I felt helpless and uncertain of what my future had in store for me. I had a great life filled with so much happiness, goals and promise.

“Then in a blink of an eye, I lost everything. I went from being a strong, independent, ambitious person that loved helping people — being the ‘go-to guy’ who had everything going for himself — to being a scared, terrified and helpless cripple. I just couldn’t understand or comprehend what went wrong or why it had to happen to me.”

At the time, Gabler didn’t know how fortunate he was for someone with his uncommon type of injury. A doctor told Gabler’s father, Wendell, that most patients die or end up in a vegetative state.

“The doctor gave him a worst-case scenario and asked my father to think about ‘pulling the plug’ to end my suffering,” Gabler says. “There my life stood in my father’s hand. He was given the choice to allow me to live, in hopes of a good recovery, or to let me go in peace.

“He took one look at me and told the doctor, ‘No, my son will make it.’ ”

From that moment, Gabler’s fight to reclaim his life began.

“My accident changed me in so many negative ways initially,” he reflects 14 years later from his home in Sylmar.

“I was filled with so much anger, despair, hate, regret and confusion that I felt at times like just giving up. All I knew at the time was that I was in the fight of my life and on a long road to recovery.”

Determined to meet a new goal

Putting his life back together required both emotional and technological support.

“If it weren’t for all the love, support and words of encouragement that I received from my family and friends during my whole traumatic ordeal, I wouldn’t be here today,” Gabler says. “Not only was this hard for me, but also for everyone else who loved me. They never once gave up on me, so I never gave up on myself.”

While a wheelchair gave Gabler back his mobility, a combination of new technology and an old communication method allowed him to regain control of his life.

At a rehabilitation hospital, he was introduced to a device that makes it possible to perform various tasks and communicate. The Darci USB software uses Morse code. When connected to his computer, a box is recognized as a keyboard. Two light input devices positioned at Gabler’s mouth allow him to give commands, he explains.

“The switch on the left is for ‘dot,’ and the switch on the right is for ‘dash.’ There is a Morse code for every key and command on the keyboard. I just input the code: for example, the letter A, which is one dot and one dash, or the number 1, which is one dot and four dashes.

“I’m able to control and perform many various tasks through this adaptive computer device,” he adds. “I can design Web pages, pay bills, surf the Web, type research papers and interact with people via e-mail, to name a few.”

Today, Gabler says he’s very self-sufficient. He shares an apartment with his service dog, Slate, and works as a freelance Web designer. He’s back in college, getting a degree in multimedia/graphic design animation.

Gabler started taking Web design classes about four years ago at North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills. His instructor was Chuck Garcia.

“One of my caregivers at the time was attending NVOC, so I decided to check out the campus,” Gabler says. “I had seen that they were offering a Web design program, but you needed to have some computer training, which I had none.

“I basically trained myself how to use the computer prior to taking the course. I was a bit apprehensive at first, unsure if I had the skills or competency to learn how to build Web sites — or if my equipment could even perform the tasks required.

“I recall Mr. Garcia asking me about my reasons for wanting to take his courses, my goals and if I had any prior computer training,” Gabler adds. “I fed him some lines and maybe told some white lies, but I was so determined to get into the class and become a Web designer, I was ready to do whatever it took to achieve my goal.”

Having what it takes to win

Gabler says he was surprised when Garcia asked him to enter SkillsUSA’s Web Design competition. “I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to compete at that level and felt that there were other students more capable and advanced than me. He told me straight to my face that he strongly felt I had what it took: the knowledge, skills and the talent to make it to the nationals. I felt flattered, honored and scared all at the same time but said to him, ‘OK, let’s do it.’

“It felt good that a teacher, especially Mr. Garcia, believed in me that much, but then again, Mr. Garcia is not like most teachers. I didn’t know what to expect through this whole process, but he took a chance on me, so I was willing to listen to him, let him guide me and prepare me for the SkillsUSA competition.”

Garcia’s students had been competing since 2006, and one team won the national gold in 2007. So it wasn’t surprising to most when Gabler’s team won the regional competition and then the state gold medal.

Flying to Missouri for the 2009 nationals was another story, Gabler says. “To tell you the truth, I was terrified to fly. I had flown many times prior to my accident, but this would be my first time flying in 13 years and in this physical condition.

“Also, I was not sure of how Slate would handle the entire flight, but he handled it quite well, from the snoring sound he made all the way to Kansas City. And, I had brought my best nurse and friend, Enrique Beltran, who made the overall trip a smooth one for me.”

Gabler’s father and stepmother, Loretta, also made the trip to the national conference, where the student felt “excited, anxious, scared, all of the above.”

He explains, “It was a bit surreal. I mean, I was not only representing myself, our team, but also my teacher, class, school, state and SkillsUSA! Good thing I was unable to move, or everyone would’ve seen me shaking from being so nervous.

“And then it hit me: I can’t believe I am here competing among the best of the best across the entire nation. I felt like I had a lot to prove, not only to myself but to all those around me. But just the fact that I had what it takes and did what it took to make it to the nationals, and was able to compete at that level despite my disability, I realized that I didn’t have to prove anything, except to do my best.”

Without using his hands, Gabler placed sixth with teammate Dammariz Flores. But just being there was enough, he says.

“Whoever would’ve thought a guy who was lying on his deathbed 13 years ago was now competing in SkillsUSA?” Or, as he puts it, “Disabled doesn’t mean unable.”