Though she can’t walk or hear, Lelia Workman does most things for herself. Deaf and quadriplegic, she lives in Heppner with her service dog Sam. She counts hunting, sewing and gardening among her hobbies. Most recently, she began teaching free American Sign Language classes downtown.
But recently, Workman has run into some difficult times. And community members are hoping to help her find a solution.
“She can live by herself, she doesn’t need to go to a nursing home,” said Jodi Segraves, Workman’s friend and caregiver. “She just needs a good provider.”
Workman spent much of Wednesday morning in the hospital with what she worried was a broken rib, a continuation of the unlucky streak she’s been riding. On Thanksgiving, Workman’s power wheelchair broke, seriously limiting her mobility. The use of the manual wheelchair has put extra stress on her arms and causes strain to her upper body.
A string of roadblocks
Workman was not born deaf or quadriplegic, as she is now. She was beaten by her parents, and lost her hearing at the age of three. Shuffled to 38 foster homes throughout her youth, she fell out of a tree when she was 14, and her injuries left her paralyzed from the waist down and partially paralyzed in her arms.
Workman ran into another challenge about three years ago, when Les, her husband of 29 years, passed away.
“It breaks my heart,” Workman said, via translation by Segraves. “I loved him very, very much.”
After Les passed, Workman said, a series of caregivers failed to work out, with one only lasting a few days.
“There’s a problem with communication,” she said. “If the person doesn’t know sign, I have to write stuff down.”
Without a care provider, Workman can do some things on her own, such as cooking some small items and washing a few dishes. But she needs help for basic care. Segraves recalled bringing Workman some food on Thanksgiving and finding her stuck in her kitchen. She needed help with food and personal hygiene, but hadn’t had it since her previous care provider left weeks earlier.
Segraves teared up.
“I told her, ‘Never again,’” Segraves said. “Call me. I’m here for you.”
Workman added that she hasn’t had any care providers, except for Segraves, that have known any sign language.
A different kind of communication
Workman communicates in American Sign Language, and is eager to share it with those who are interested. She teaches twice-weekly classes in downtown Heppner, where she attracts students young and old.
“My nine-month old granddaughter is learning sign language from Lelia,” Segraves said, adding that the baby was fascinated by Workman’s hand movements from the time she was just a month old.
But she also communicates with friends in other states via a video phone. If she’s talking with other friends who are deaf, they can just sign back and forth. But if she’s talking to someone that doesn’t understand ASL, a video interpreter will be present and translate to the person with whom Workman is talking.
Her classes are full-immersion in the language. Students can’t speak verbally to each other and must communicate completely through sign.
“I love teaching,” she said.
Segraves, a restaurant owner in Heppner, met Workman about 15 years ago, around the time they both moved to town. But they didn’t really get to be good friends until a few months ago, when Workman started teaching sign language classes.
“She has a big heart,” Segraves said. “And she asks for nothing. She has very little, but needs a lot. And I’m going to help her get it.”
Though she has four children, Workman is not in contact with any family members. But she has many friends and well-wishers throughout Heppner.
Before her wheelchair broke, she would go downtown several times a week, where the employees of Murray’s Drug and Breaking Grounds Coffee look forward to seeing her.
“She’s always so happy,” said Tayllor Brannon of Breaking Grounds. “We all know the hand signs — and she has a usual back here.”
That “usual” is a large strawberry Italian soda with cream and whipped cream.
“My little brothers in the winter go grocery shopping for her,” Brannon said. “And with the sign language classes she’s doing, the whole town’s involved.”
“She could really throw a pity party,” said Jodi, a Murray’s Drug employee. “But she doesn’t. She’s such an inspiration.”
But issues remain. Her home, where she’s lived for five years, is not ADA- friendly.
Segraves has set up a GoFundMe page, with a goal of raising enough money to either redo parts of Workman’s house to make them ADA-compliant, or to find her a new place to live.
“Right now, we’re in a catch-22,” Segraves said. “We’re praying, hoping, that maybe there’s a house for us.”
Workman’s current house needs many upgrades. The ramp needs to be repaired. Outdoor lighting, a new gate and an upgraded fence need to be installed. She also needs new locks on her doors, and doorways must be widened so they are easier for her wheelchair to navigate.
Perhaps one of the most important changes, Segraves said, is making the bathroom handicap-accessible. As of now, she has to be moved into a tub on a transfer board.
Lelia’s GoFundMe website is available at https://www.gofundme.com/lelia-project.
Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4534