Eve See-Dutra says her daughter Karin Morris was always determined to help others.
“She’s always had the desire to help the underdog,” See-Dutra, 62, said Wednesday.
Fifteen years ago, a car accident left Morris in a coma, hooked up to a ventilator. Suddenly, Morris was in the position of underdog. In the years since the accident, she learned to live and work with traumatic brain injury. She built a career working with other people with disabilities, and just over a year ago, the city of Bend hired Morris as its accessibility manager.
The city has struggled over the years to gain the trust of residents with disabilities and accessibility advocates, who had to sue to get the city to fix problems with bus stops, sidewalk curb ramps and other infrastructure. A year into Morris’ tenure, advocates have a mixed reaction. Carol Fulkerson, a volunteer disability and accessibility advocate and a member of the Central Oregon Coalition for Access steering committee, declined to comment on Morris’ job performance. Fulkerson has been critical of the city’s handling of accessibility issues. The coalition advocates to make the community more accessible to people with disabilities.
Carl Backstrom, 46, of Redmond, is also a member of the steering committee of the access group and is complimentary of Morris. “Any time I personally asked her a question and brought up a concern, she answers in an expedient manner, with the information I need,” Backstrom said.
Geoff Babb, 56, of Bend, is a member of the city of Bend Accessibility Advisory Committee and said he has been pleased with Morris’ work over the last year. “She’s really reached out to understand and get to know the different disabled or adaptive groups in town. I think Bend is steadily making progress in the right direction,” Babb said.
Morris, 37, is working on projects to help the city comply with a 2004 settlement agreement, but she said in an interview last week the “hyper-focus” by the city and some accessibility advocates on finishing required curb-ramp work has prevented some people from taking a broader view of accessibility.
“There’s a lot more to the Americans with Disabilities Act than curb ramps,” Morris said. “The goal is that people with disabilities are included in the society … to make (accessibility) an everyday occurrence so it just becomes a natural thing. It becomes this is what we want to do, because we want everyone to participate equally.”
Morris has worked with special-event organizers and accessibility advocates to make concerts and festivals more navigable this summer for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices. She said examples of other work include making sure affordable housing proposals are designed to be accessible to people with disabilities and that the city accommodates employees with disabilities.
Morris knows firsthand about the need for certain accommodations at work. She has had to develop strategies over the years to deal with her brain injury. “My long-term memory is OK, but my short term is a little impaired,” Morris said. “I’m bad with names.” Fatigue is also a problem, and Morris sometimes has to take a break during the day to rest.
Even if Morris focused solely on fixing all the city’s curb ramps, it would be a huge task. Bend has completed much of the work required in the settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which called for the city to fix government buildings, sidewalks and curb ramps that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the city expects to miss the September settlement deadline to fix the thousands of noncompliant curb ramps that city employees built or signed off on since the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act. The city has more than 7,100 curb ramps, of which more than half — roughly 4,800 — are still out of compliance with the ADA. A city plan calls for Bend to add more than 1,000 accessible curb ramps during the next three years by fixing existing ramps and building new ones at sites that lack ramps. During the same time period, the city expects to build more than 2 miles of accessible sidewalk.
Accident a turning point
Morris grew up in Martinez, Calif., in the Bay Area . She always wanted to be a lawyer, and her mother, See-Dutra, said all four of her children worked hard to succeed. “I’m a single mom, so ... they learned the hard way. You do what you have to do to get things done, and everyone has to work together. And you just push.”
See-Dutra is the administrative officer for a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Chico, Calif.
In January 1999, Morris, then 21, had completed a couple of years of community college and recently transferred to San Francisco State University. She said she was driving down a road near her home around 1 p.m. on a Sunday during a rainstorm, when her car hit standing water and hydroplaned off the road. Morris said her car “pingponged” off several trees, before she hit an oak tree and stopped. Her head crashed through the windshield and the driver’s side window.
Morris does not remember the accident. “I was in a coma for about a month, but your whole processing of time after a traumatic brain injury is messed up,” Morris said. As a result, Morris feels like she lost closer to a year of her life.
When she woke up, she faced numerous daunting challenges. “My whole right side was paralyzed,” Morris said. “I stood up, I fell down.”
“She had to learn to walk again. She had to learn to write,” See-Dutra said. “She had severe double vision initially and had to work through that. It was a pretty major head injury.”
Morris told medical staff she would be ready to go home by her birthday at the end of March, a goal that doctors said was ambitious, her mother said. “She was very, very adamant that she was going to be better, she was going to be fine,” See-Dutra said. “And (she) overdid things. I mean, not in a bad way. If they said you had physical therapy for an hour, the nurses would tell us they would find Karin down there doing physical therapy longer than that.”
Morris met her personal deadline to leave the rehabilitation center and moved home with her mother, younger brother and sister. “That was a whole other ordeal,” Morris said. “It’s just difficult (going from) being a very independent person, to being very dependent.”
At the same time, Morris lost some of her old friends for a variety of reasons. “Twenty-one-year-old friends don’t want to hang out with someone who walks with a walker,” Morris said. There was little external sign of her injuries, so friends and some family members expected Morris to be the same person as before the accident.
“I was very angry the first few years after the accident, and that was hard for people to deal with,” Morris said. “I lost a lot of friends.”
Eventually, Morris started going to weekly therapy sessions. “I don’t think I would be where I am now, if I didn’t do that,” Morris said. She also started working part time and took more college courses. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2002.
Morris’ traumatic brain injury, and some of the people she met after it, helped push her career in a new direction. During college, she worked part time at a group home for boys with severe emotional disturbance and at a day center for developmentally disabled adults. Morris took to heart the advice of a close friend, who observed that Morris interacted well with her son and suggested Morris work with people with disabilities.
In 2006, Morris started working for a behavioral modification program in the Bay Area for developmentally disabled children, teaching life skills. One of Morris’ clients was Danny Ault, a 10-year-old autistic boy who did not speak but used a picture communication system. His mother, Beverly Ault, 62, said her family ultimately decided to place Danny in a group home, a decision that upset Morris. But Danny ended up doing well in the group home and made friends, something his mother attributed to Morris’ work with him.
Morris loved the job but said it was difficult to make ends meet. Her shifts were scattered throughout the week and did not add up to full-time employment, so she took a job at the Pacific ADA Center, which provides assistance to job seekers with disabilities and businesses. She had also been working toward a master’s degree in sociology at California State University, East Bay, and completed her coursework in 2009, when she received a job offer from the Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
About two years later, Morris took a job as ADA accessibility coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where she worked to bring the hospital into compliance with the ADA.
Advocates praise Morris’ work
Since Morris moved to Bend to be closer to family on the West Coast, she has spent a lot of her free time volunteering with Oregon Adaptive Sports. Backstrom, an athlete who uses a wheelchair, said he connected Morris with the organization, where Backstrom previously served on the board of directors. Backstrom and Babb said they were impressed that Morris jumped right into community activities.
Babb, who also uses a wheelchair, was on the selection committee that interviewed Morris for the job. “I think we knew (the successful candidate) was going to be somebody with a long view, that it wasn’t going to be a simple solution to quickly turn the accessibility issues around,” Babb said Wednesday. “We were just really impressed by her energy and enthusiasm and knowledge of disability issues.”
Babb said he appreciates Morris’ involvement in the community. “She’s really reached out to understand and get to know the different disabled or adaptive groups in town. She’s volunteered with Oregon Adaptive Sports. She’s taken an interest in Healing Reins (therapeutic horse riding center), which I’m on the board of. I really appreciate that she’s reached out to the rest of the community.”
Babb said Morris also spent time with city construction crews as they installed new curb ramps or replaced faulty ones. “I think she’s been a really good advocate in that way, helping different sides understand what the others are thinking,” Babb said.
Babb acknowledged the city’s efforts to address accessibility problems did not always unfold smoothly. In the first few years after the citizen committee formed in 2010, three members resigned and said the committee seemed unfocused and unable to make concrete improvements in accessibility.
“It’s an evolving process and evolving relationship, but I think it does only continue to get better,” Babb said. “Even when I go to other cities of the same size as Bend, I run into bad curb ramps or bad accessibility. I think, ‘Wow, Bend has come a long way.’ It may not be as far as some people would like, but we’ve come a long ways.”
Last year, Backstrom ran into problems when he attended the Bank of the Cascades Bend Summer Festival. Electrical cords lacked the proper covers for people using wheelchairs to cross them, and a concert stage was set up in the middle of the street without good access. “Every time I go down there, it’s been a nightmare, using a wheelchair,” Backstrom said. He emailed the organizer, C3 Events, and Morris also got involved.
“I saw her really pick it up,” Backstrom said, adding that C3 Events also “really stepped up to the plate.” Morris and C3 Events worked with the Coalition for Access, and “it’s turned into a great example, kind of a turning point for everyone in town,” Backstrom said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7829, firstname.lastname@example.org