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Tuesday, February 10, 2004  

News and analysis: Life . . . and limitations

Back in my law firm days, I became fairly well-informed about the rights of the handicapped. We did large tort cases and some products liability law. However, you don't discover much about plaintiffs as people from research. One way I learned more about what disabled people were thinking was by spending some time at online forums for those with disabilities. Two news stories yesterday led me to think about something I realized there.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (AP) -- A paraplegic pursuing his love of auto racing struck and killed a worker picking up track debris during a race at the Daytona International Speedway, an accident that has raised questions about worker safety during races.

Roy H. Weaver III, 44, who worked at the speedway for seven years, was in the middle of turn No. 2 during a caution period when he was killed, track spokesman David Talley said Sunday.

The driver, Ray Paprota, 41, is the first known paraplegic to race in a national stock car series. He controlled his car with levers, buttons and knobs located on or around the steering wheel.

. . .Paprota, who hasn't had use of his legs since a 1984 auto accident, was trying to catch the main pack of cars after a two-car crash at the opposite end of the track brought out a yellow flag. He was driving at more than 100 mph.

Since the crash that killed Weaver is recent, it has not been established whether Paprota's reliance on a specially designed race car was a causal factor in the accident. But, what if it was?

The other incident, also involving harm to someone, occurred closer to home.

CLACKAMAS -- Rescuers found the body of a missing deaf and blind man near the Bagby Hot Springs area of the snow-covered Mt. Hood National Forest on Saturday evening, authorities said.

Monmouth resident Richard Thomas Melton, 26, probably died of hypothermia, said Jim Strovink, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. Melton was dressed lightly -- in shorts and a sweatshirt -- when he went missing early Saturday morning.

The temperature in the area was about 35 degrees, with two feet of snow on the ground. Strovink said investigators didn't suspect any foul play.

Searchers found Melton's body just off the Bagby Hot Springs Trail, between the Bagby Hot Springs tub area and the Bagby parking lot. The trail is approximately a mile and a half long, and three feet wide and has rugged terrain, with steep drop offs of 20 to 30 feet.

Melton and a friend, who is also deaf, decided to go hiking and hot tubbing last weekend. Neither of them was dressed for the terrain, which is still covered with snow in places. In addition to not wearing coats, they had on unsuitable footwear. They did not take food, flashlights or blankets. Melton, unable to see after losing his glasses, became separated from his friend, possibly after they had a spat, and disappeared.

A Monmouth man who wandered off the trail Friday night at Bagby Hot Springs died of hypothermia, the state medical examiner's office ruled Monday.

Sheriff's officials confirmed that Melton was missing about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, Brandenburg said. A companion, Luana Pollock, 25, of Silverton alerted a passing motorist about 2 a.m. that she had lost sight of Melton as they hiked out from the hot springs.

After a preliminary drive-by search of the area and confirmation by Monmouth police that Melton had not returned home, the department launched its highest level of search effort about 6:45 a.m., Brandenburg said.

Pollock now says she and Melton did not quarrel and she did not walk away from him. Instead, she says, she lost him when the cigarette lighter he had been using as their only method of illumination went out. According to her, the problem was aggravated when people she encountered refused to interact with her because she can't speak clearly.

The friend of a Monmouth hiker who died after wandering off a trail said she tried to get help immediately, but no one would communicate with her because she is deaf and cannot speak well.

Luana Pollock, 25, of Silverton, speaking through her mother Sunday, described her frustration at trying to tell other hikers on the trail that she'd lost sight of her friend, Richard Thomas Melton, 26, who was deaf and sight-impaired.

"Her speech isn't good, and they just thought she was a weirdo and shrugged her off," said Pollock's mother, Sherry Pollock of Silverton. "If someone would have taken the time to listen to her, they would have known they were in trouble."

I have observed able bodied people treat disabled people as if they have a disease that can be communicated. Shying away, averting their eyes or even making fun of the handicapped. I believe it comes from some atavistic desire to ward off harm by scapegoating those considered unfortunate.

A recurring theme I noticed in my visits to forums for the disabled was a desire by handicapped people to do things they, realistically, couldn't. Often, the things they wanted to do were physical. That is not surprising considering that most people who suffer mobility impairing injuries are young and physically active.

I don't know whether Peralta will return to racing cars or not. Arguably, if any driver could have accidentally run down a track worker, it doesn't matter that a paraplegic driver did. But, I suspect there will always be a nagging doubt in his mind, and other people's, about whether his handicap played a role in the accident.

I see the Melton incident as mainly about negligence by Pollock and he. Yes, the refusal of other hikers to try to understand her garbled words delayed the rescue attempt. However, but for the two young adults, both of whom had normal intelligence, having set out on and continued a poorly planned excursion, Melton would not be dead.

On Sunday, the mothers of Melton and Pollock shared one regret:

"There is this thing about people not wanting to connect with someone who's deaf," Sherry Pollock said. "Maybe this could have come out differently if someone had just tried to communicate with my daughter.

"Aside from that, two deaf kids never should have been up there by themselves in the first place."

So, what is to be done? There are amputees who want to break dance. Paraplegics who desire long distance swims. Deaf people who would love to perform lieder. And, there was at least one girl with bad vision who wanted to fly airplanes -- me. Yes, too many years ago, this sufferer of keratoconus, which makes my right eye pretty useless, failed the unaided vision test for flight school. I've taken up activities that don't require excellent eyes instead. There may be devices that will allow a disabled person to perform a version of the desired activity. But, often, there is no way to compensate. We can cavil with fate, but it seems to be that sometimes people just have to accept their limitations.

10:15 PM