Day 6

Wheelchair Man: The real life origin story of an unlikely superhero

Mohammad Sayed was born in Afghanistan. His mother died when he was young and his father, a soldier, disappeared after Mohammad's spine was crushed in an explosion. Mohammad was left to fend for himself, and he did, making his way to a prestigious program at M.I.T. in the United States, where he helped rethink wheelchair design from a user's perspective. He tells his life story in a new comic he created called Wheelchair Man.
(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power/ Mohammad Sayed)

Superhero origin stories usually involve loss, overcoming mental and physical feats and a pivotal moment that sends the burgeoning saviour on a new path.

For the title character in a new series called Wheelchair Man, that moment was 15 years ago, and the path led him to America.

Mohammad Sayed based the comic on his own life story and as he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, it's about a lot more than your regular superhero story.

"It's a story of resilience and surviving," he says. "At a young age, I lost my family and the only thing I had was my strong faith, hope and this ability to never give up."

Sayed was born in Afghanistan. He was just a child when a bomb hit his house and crushed his spine. His family took him to a nearby hospital where the doctors and nurses saved his life, but no one returned for him.

(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power / Mohammad Sayed)

It took 12 painful surgeries to fix his back. Sayed would be okay, but he was left paralyzed and orphaned.

Sayed, still not a teenager, was living alone in an empty hospital when a nurse from the U.S. found him, adopted him and brought him home with her to Boston. That's when his special powers kicked in.

"My mentality is that we see these things happening all the time in the past, but the important thing is to focus on how to make the future better," he says.

"We are all human. We have all lost something important in our lives. We have all faced a challenge that really hurt us internally. What's important is that we never give in. That's the human spirit."

Mohammad with Maria Pia Sanchez, a nurse who adopted him and brought him to America in 2009. (Mohammad Sayed)


Superheroes need super sidekicks

​Sayed built that sense of optimism into his comic alter-ego.

"We gave him powers that I would like to have in real life," he says.  "One of them is to make peace in the world."

(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power / Mohammad Sayed)

Wheelchair Man has the ability to make criminals see the consequences of their crimes before they commit them. It's a superpower built on morality but it's not his only one. He can fly and turn invisible thanks to his super sidekick.

"The wheelchair is its own character," Sayed says. "He cannot use the wheelchair to do things that are damaging to the world."

Sayed sees the wheelchair as a check and balance for the hero. Like Sayed, Wheelchair Man has to learn how to use the device and make it work with him and for him. If done right, it can provide great power.

(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power / Mohammad Sayed)


Some heroes aren't so super actually

The idea of creating his own comic came to Sayed, now 20 years old, when his mom took him to Comic Con in Boston. He noticed there were all kinds of heroes and heroines, but none with a disability.

"I had been through struggles. I know the challenges people with disabilities face around the world and that they are cast away by society," he says.

He also noticed a lack of diversity. Wheelchair Man is a disabled, Muslim immigrant. It's an unexpected trifecta for a comic book hero.

"My goal back then was to write it about myself, and I think so many people have been inspired by the idea," he says.

"I'm proud to identify myself with those characteristics because this is a true example of saying to the world, 'You can go through horrible things in your life but you can still move on.'"

I know the challenges people with disabilities face around the world- Wheelchair Man creator Mohammad Sayed

Sayed says the comic demonstrates a different set of values from the average muscled-up confrontationalist.

"You go to the movies and it starts with all this action and ends up with the superhero destroying everything but he still becomes the hero," Sayed says. "What is the message superheroes are sending to young kids?"

According to Sayed, Wheelchair Man is different because he's all about peace and challenging the status quo.

"It's about saying that a superhero can be a real person," he says.


The Wheelchair Avengers

The first issue of Wheelchair Man ends with Mohammad flying back to Afghanistan. Sayed says that's the first of many similar trips for the title character.

(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power / Mohammad Sayed)

"Part of his journey is to go around the world and find other characters with disabilities," he says.

There are five original characters in the works, including Wheelchair Man,  Wheelchair Woman, Wheelchair Boy, Wheelchair Girl and Captain Afghanistan, who is based on Sayed's best friend and will be introduced in book two.

"We will eventually call them the Wheelchair Avengers," he says. "They can each have responsibility in a corner of the world, making the world a better place."


Family Ties

"Everything you read in the book are things that I want to do in real life," Sayed says, adding that the Afghanistan storyline is based on his real desire to get back to his home country.

"I really wanted to go back this summer, but because of everything that is happening, unfortunately, that will not happen."

(Arielle Epstein / RIM Power / Mohammad Sayed)

In the comic, Wheelchair Man's entire family is killed but we later learn his younger sister survives.  Wheelchair Man returns to Panjshir valley to find her.  Sayed says he thinks about his real life family in Afghanistan every day.

"I think about it every night before I go to bed," he says. "I'm hopeful that someday I might be able to go back and I might be able to find my sister. That's my big dream before I die."

To hear Brent's full conversation with Mohammad Sayed, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.