The Bright Side of a Wheelchair

Alumni story
Gordon Richins 1994 1996 Logan
Photo of Gordon Richins
Gordon Richins

My life changed completely on August 9, 1987. That day, after 15 years of dairy farming, I was loading bales of hay onto a truck. A bale fell from the top of the haystack and struck me on the head, which severed my spinal cord between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae in my neck. I was paralyzed from the neck down.

After two weeks in intensive care and six months in a rehabilitation unit, I returned home on January 10, 1988, with very little arm movement and no hand movement. Life would never be the same for my wife, Faustine, my son, Dustin, and me. We were scared to death about how to deal with my physical disability and unemployment.

I soon realized I must carve out a new life for myself and my young family. Being home from the hospital and enjoying the company and assistance of my community helped change my attitude toward the future. My friends and neighbors provided us with help and financial support, which I soon realized I could never repay. I promised to do anything I could to help give back to my community in any way.

I no longer had the physical ability to do farm labor on my in-laws’ dairy farm. But I was given the opportunity to attend college at Utah State University, which is not too far from my home in Preston, Idaho, by the Idaho Vocational Rehabilitation program. The program provided me with the financial assistance to earn a degree and pursue employment that I would be able to do. It took four and a half years to graduate, an accomplishment I’m very proud of.

After graduating from Utah State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Business, I interviewed with several companies but didn’t receive an offer. A friend encouraged me to check into a position as an Outreach Specialist with OPTIONS for Independence, northern Utah’s Center for Independent Living. I got an interview, was offered the position and realized that my life would change again, this time in a very positive manner.

I served two years as an Outreach Specialist and AmeriCorps*VISTA member. During that time I became passionate about advocating for people with disabilities, realizing there were many disability issues that had direct influence on the quality of life of people with disabilities. I soon realized I had joined an organization that generated a very positive outlook on life with a disability instead of the negative outlook of “you can’t do this or you won’t be able to do that.”

Under Helen Roth’s direction, my two years with OPTIONS for Independence was very busy and productive. It was a time of personal growth as my outlook on life changed dramatically. People with disabilities deal with quality-of-life issues that the rest of America takes for granted. I attended many community activities, trainings and statewide systems change projects that allowed me to address those issues directly. I also joined three national groups that advocate for individuals with disabilities, allowing me to better represent Utah and my friends and family. My involvement resulted in community improvements, including accessibility to transportation and housing.

One of my projects was an information booklet that provided community contact information for individuals with a disability. It answered the many questions I had when I left the hospital. The booklet was shared throughout northern Utah and mailed out to consumers statewide as requested. Another was the development of a community advocacy group to address community issues, such as those addressed in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The group, Concerned Citizens with Disabilities Coalition, is still active today, 10 years after its development.

I also graduated from Partners in Policy Making, a statewide advocacy program designed to develop community advocates willing to engage in community systems change that enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities. Being a driving force in this community enhancement is very gratifying.

I have very fond memories of people I met, places I went and the community changes I was part of during my VISTA position. Giving back to my community gave me a new sense of worth after becoming an individual with a serious physical disability, quadriplegia.

As I neared the end of my two years I realized I had changed as a person, I could see my community changing and I felt good about myself and my involvement in the process. As I worked on a resume to pursue future employment, my Bachelor of Science degree now had a lot of experience to go with it. I had also gained a level of confidence I had never had before. I knew I could go to work somewhere, make a difference and pay my own bills. I even paid off my student loans from the education award and was able to utilize the remainder of my tuition dollars for additional college courses.

Life is now totally different than my 15 years as a dairy farmer. I look at life differently and know the future will be just as positive as the last two years have been. My new friends are always positive and this seemed to have rubbed off on me. I am once again happy; I’m repaying my community and do not have the level of depression I experienced after my accident. I’m too busy to sit around and feel sorry for myself. Life is good again.

Decade: 1990s