Agency Staff Using Their Disabilities to Aid Others


David Heath and Tami Ridley are quadriplegics, and Christina Rahn is deaf. But they have found a way to turn disabilities into assets as they help hundreds of disabled Ventura County residents.

The three help run Ventura's Independent Living Resource Center, assisting disabled clients with everything from hiring personal assistants to guiding them through red tape to just being a friend.

"I'm not a counselor by any stretch of the imagination, but I've been through a lot of the same things as the people who call," said Heath, 50. "I understand it and at least have some insight into a lot of their problems."

The center is a nonprofit organization that assists clients with a variety of disability-related services, including interpreting for the deaf, locating personal assistants, securing benefits and peer support. The organization--which is funded through state and federal grants, private donations and support from the United Way--also plans to begin offering support groups and organized activities for the disabled.

According to county statistics based on data collected during the 1990 census, there are about 50,000 disabled people living in Ventura County.

Heath, Ridley and Rahn agree that, in many ways, living with a disability has given them a unique and personal perspective on the problems disabled individuals encounter on a daily basis. That perspective, they said, helps their clients reclaim their own lives.

"Sometimes they're almost happy that I'm deaf," said Rahn, 29. "And I think it has definitely helped me help these people become more successful."

Christopher Flynn turned to the center in 1995 after a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. He credits the staff with giving him back a life he thought paralysis had stolen.

With the help of staff members, the 30-year-old Thousand Oaks resident launched Dial-N-Dine, a service that delivers food to homes and businesses from several different restaurants.

"If I didn't have this business, I'd be really depressed," he said. "They're the ones who really helped me get this going."

Flynn added that because the center's staffers are themselves disabled, he had the confidence to pursue his entrepreneurial dream.

"I trusted their input because they knew where I was coming from," he said. "That really put me at ease and gave me a much more positive outlook."

Each of the three workers specializes in a certain aspect of assistance. Heath helps clients collect benefits such as Social Security and locate affordable housing and serves as an advocate for those seeking recourse after being denied equal participation in society.

In addition to matching disabled clients with personal assistants, Ridley, 36--who is also a lawyer--helps clients with legal issues and goes into the community to counsel young disabled people on the options available to them.

Rahn, the center's only deaf employee, works exclusively with the hearing-impaired to find sign language interpreters, housing and services fitting their needs.

Together, they have almost 60 years' experience living with a disability and know firsthand both the psychological and physical challenges confronting those like them.

"It's like living in a house of cards," Heath said. "Even now, I still feel like I've got 12 balls in the air and if I drop one, I'll lose them all."

Before losing the use of his arms and legs in a car accident at age 35, Heath was a firefighter, husband and father of two. He had toured the world during a three-year stint as a merchant seaman and served almost two years as an infantryman in Vietnam.

But accepting his paralysis and learning to live with it was the toughest battle he'd ever fought, Heath said.

In the years immediately after the accident, Heath withdrew from family and friends and spent long, alcohol-soaked days at home. But after three years of what he calls "self-medicating," Heath slowly began to come to terms with what had happened.

"I finally decided I couldn't be a full-time drunk and had to do something," he said. "Besides, the hangovers were too bad."

Heath initially called the resource center as a client but ended up volunteering and eventually landed a full-time position at the agency. And although he still looks back fondly on the camaraderie he shared at the Los Angeles Fire Department, Heath said he finds similar satisfaction working at the center.

When she was just 16 months old, doctors diagnosed Rahn as deaf. But she has never let a life spent in silence impede her dreams of working with others who share her disability.

She attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.--the country's premier university for the deaf--and hoped to become a teacher one day.

But Rahn turned to advocacy in 1988, when the university decided to hire a president who was not deaf. She joined fellow students in a protest that garnered national attention and since then has worked as both an advocate and assistant for the deaf.

Ridley was a student at the University of Hawaii, where she was studying international business with the hope of someday working in Asia. But that all changed when a balmy summer night and full moon enticed her to dive off a dock--into barely a foot of water.

Initially, she set out to help find a cure, lending her body to more clinical studies and fund-raising drives than she could count. But when the dream of walking again looked less and less like a reality, Ridley decided it was time to start living with her disability rather than running from it.

"You can't put your life on hold waiting for a cure," she said. "Eventually, you just come to a point where you have to accept it and say, 'This is my life.' "

She finished a degree in finance and went on to law school, where she became an advocate for other disabled students. After law school, Ridley served as a White House fellow and authored several policy proposals for Presidents Bush and Clinton on how to expand services and improve the quality of life for the disabled.

Despite the fact that each has lived with her or his disability for more than a decade, the staffers said they continue to experience the same frustrations they did early on.

"Able-bodied people are always telling me what an inspiration I am, and that bothers me," Heath said. "All I'm doing is living my life the best way I can, and I'm not doing it any differently than someone else in this situation would."

Ridley also faces reduced expectations. Once, at a legal seminar, a judge asked her what she would do if she ever had to go to court.

"I couldn't believe this, coming from a guy who spends his whole day in a chair," she said, laughing. "A lawyer's role is to read, think, speak and research, not [do] jumping jacks or four-minute miles."

But, the staffers said, it is those kinds of experiences that make them better able to serve their clients.

"I know there are a lot of hurdles you have to overcome when you're disabled," Heath said. "In this job, I've met people who haven't been out of their house in years because of their disability, so it feels good when I can help them, even just a little."

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