ECHO — When people meet Vera Burres, they don’t always know she has a disability.
Burres fell down the stairs at a friend’s home in 2004 and spent four months in a coma after striking her head. Now she said, her entire left side occasionally goes numb, putting her at risk of falling if it happens while she’s walking. She can’t drive because she’s at a high risk for seizures. She said she also experiences other side effects off and on, such as short-term memory loss, favoring one side while walking and or jumbling her words if she speaks too quickly.
“People don’t believe me,” she said. “They say, ‘You’re just drunk.’”
The skepticism can hurt, but sometimes it goes beyond that. Burres said she has had requests for accommodations denied in the past, such as when the post office in Echo turned down her application to have mail delivered to her home instead of a post office box downtown.
Darrin Umbarger, CEO of Clearview Disability Resource Center in Pendleton, said when he travels to workplaces and schools to advocate for accessibility, he always tries to educate people on being sensitive to disabilities that aren’t obvious to passersby.
“When I go in there they see me, they see I’m in a chair, and they try to help,” he said. “But for someone with hidden disabilities, it’s so much worse.”
He said people will complain about someone who appears able-bodied using a handicapped parking permit, for example. But the person who walked out of their vehicle and into the store may be having a rare “good day,” or they might live with chronic pain, lung problems or other issues that makes it difficult for them to walk very far.
“A lot of disabilities are intermittent,” Umbarger said. “You have a good day, a bad day. It’s really hard when you don’t look like something is wrong with you, but inside you’re dying.”
Buress said one of the difficulties she has faced since her accident is that she doesn’t always know where to turn when she faces a problem. For that reason, she didn’t pursue action against a caregiver who stole from her years ago, she said, or fight an eviction from an apartment in Hermiston.
She’s also thinking about trying to return to the workforce, but could use some help in navigating challenges there.
“There are lot of things I can do if I pace myself, but there is not a lot I can do (for work) in Echo,” she said.
Umbarger said Clearview, as a resource center, is a great place for people to turn if they need help with those sorts of questions. In addition to providing physical services, such as transportation and loaning out medical equipment for free, staff can also counsel people on where to seek resources.
For someone experiencing a disability since birth or during childhood, schools often help connect parents to resources for their child. But for someone whose disability didn’t develop until adulthood, they can feel more on their own.
“Everyone is just one accident away from being disabled,” Umbarger said.
Another place people in Eastern Oregon can go to find resources is the Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living, which has offices in Pendleton, Ontario and The Dalles. W. Kirt Toombs, CEO and founder, said staff can talk on the phone or make visits as well if needed.
The center promotes independent living and equal access for all people with disabilities. They have a research institute that provides “actionable research” on ways to improve disability systems, and they provide peer-based services, such as skills training and advocacy.
“People are matched with peer counselors, offered at no cost to the individual. ... It’s people with disabilities providing services to other people with disabilities who have experienced the same thing,” Toombs said.
For example, different disabilities require different accommodations — someone whose hearing is impaired would benefit from talking to someone with a hearing impairment, while someone who is blind or uses a wheelchair might benefit from different advice about tackling accessibility issues.
They can also provide advice of the type Buress is seeking, to help people know how many hours they can work before they start losing needed benefits and to give them the tools they need to advocate for themselves in the workplace when they are discriminated against or need to request an accommodation.
Toombs said self-advocacy is important, but it’s a skill that can take time to learn — something he learned himself as someone who is hard of hearing.
Umbarger also said he has learned over time to advocate for himself and for others since his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis at age 23. He said communities choose the extent to which its members are disabled, by creating an environment where they can move about freely or one where residents with disabilities are barred from parts of the city or services due to a lack of accessibility.
Last year, Burres gathered signatures to persuade Kayak Public Transit to add a bus stop in Echo so that people who can’t drive could have a way to access services in Hermiston.
She said she approached the East Oregonian to share her story because she hopes she can inspire others to be more accommodating to people with disabilities, particularly hidden disabilities, and that she can learn about resources that may help her or others who might face even larger challenges.
“It’s not just me,” she said.