Jose Adan Guardado has every right to be mad at the world.
He was born with cerebral palsy in El Salvador, where his mother abandoned him as a toddler. His grandparents collected the little boy and raised him at their home in Irrigon.
Multiple disabilities make each day a climb up Mt. Everest for the 23-year-old. He can’t speak intelligibly. He struggles to control his muscles and eats via a tube connected to a port in his stomach. Painful spasms make his muscles cramp and contract.
While others might give up in the face of such obstacles, Guardado stubbornly figures out ways over, through and around them.
He recently launched a business called The Wheelman Designs, selling T-shirts of his own design through the e-commerce website Etsy. His latest design consists of a likeness of himself with a mohawk haircut and fluorescent yellow high tops sitting in a wheelchair, raising his arms in triumph. Beside him are the words “Rockstar” and “The Wheelman” in bold red. Another shirt is entitled Bling Wheelman, referring to Guardado’s love of bling, especially an oversized sparkly cross he wears most days. The shirts, in an array of sizes, cost $20.
So far, he has sold almost 60 of them, and recently ordered A.J.’s Printed Apparel in Hermiston to make 50 more. He hopes to earn enough to purchase a wheelchair accessible van.
“I created this line of designs with disABLED people in mind,” writes the artist on his website, “I work on an iPad creating designs with my right pinky. While I’m physically dependent on others, I am fiercely independent at heart.”
Guardado communicates with nods, smiles, eye rolls, head shakes, exuberant exclamations and the help of his ever-present iPad. With the pad, he painstakingly guides an uncooperative knuckle across the glass, touching letters, words, pictures and phrases that are vocalized through a speaker. His body bucks. Imagine trying to use an iPad while riding the Tilt-A-Whirl or a mechanical bull and you’ll have a sense of the focus Guardado must have to do things other people do without a second thought. To get the right leverage he must sit on the floor, brace himself on his left leg and lean over the screen, concentrating like someone trying to thread a needle while running stairs.
Guardado’s buddy, Laurie Ellis, helps smooth the rough edges for him.
Ellis first met Guardado when he was a 6-year-old at A.C. Houghton Elementary School where she worked as special education assistant. They quickly formed a bond. Since there wasn’t much in the way of communication devices or software then, she learned to read his expressions and movements.
“In the beginning, it was like ESP,” she said.
She soon realized the little boy was crazy smart.
“He’s always been really bright,” Ellis said. “And he’s got an indomitable spirit.”
Eventually, technology improved their communication and she glimpsed even more of Adan’s inner world.
Guardado is starting to prove himself to others as well. He did computer repair, designed 3D videos and designed logos for organizations such as the Arlington Public Library.
He and Ellis, who now substitute teaches in the Morrow County School District, stayed close through the years. In his teens, Ellis even picked up Guardado’s homecoming date for him.
During his time at Irrigon Junior/Senior High School, he weathered two huge challenges.
The first came when his rickety power wheelchair started to stutter and stop at inopportune times. He started a GoFundMe account to buy a high-tech $18,000 motorized chair that would allow him to venture out into the community and to communicate despite his dysfunctional body. His teachers, fellow students and community members came through with the cash.
Another challenge came when he got an order from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service saying he would be deported back to El Salvador where many who knew him worried he would die. With efforts of Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden, the order was eventually withdrawn.
He recently obtained his official U.S. citizenship, but isn’t eligible for health insurance for a while. He encourages others to ask Congress to remove the waiting period.
“I need a therapist because my body is hurting,” Guardado wrote. “I need to wait two years before I get insurance.”
Despite his worries, Ellis said he doesn’t dwell on his problems.
“He’s always been an inspiration to me,” Ellis said. “He’s always has a smile on his face.”
On Wednesday, Ellis sat in Guardado’s bedroom in his grandparent’s home and chatted with him about the business. Ellis contributes by packaging the orders (though Guardado prints the labels) and serving as a sounding board. She’s an artist too with her own Etsy site.
This summer, they will attend two festivals together — Umatilla Landing Days and the Watermelon Festival in Hermiston — where they will set up booths next to each other and sell T-shirts.
They are obviously close. When Ellis worked at Tonia’s House, a residence for runaway and homeless girls in Pendleton, she sometimes brought girls to meet Guardado.
“They’d hang out with him a little bit,” Ellis said. “They saw how hard he was working and were able to see outside themselves.”
Lately, she’s noticed Guardado has gotten a little restless.
“As he’s gotten older, he seems more frustrated,” she said. “He wants to get out and be independent.”
With the proceeds of his shirt sales, he may finally realize that dream.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.