Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement

Edward V. Roberts

Audio transcript: On Don Lorence and his power wheelchair
Date: September 15, 1994
Interviewer: Susan O'Hara

Note: Transcripts have been lightly edited; therefore there may be slight discrepancies with audio clips.

Don came about '68, '69, somewhere in there. And I couldn't believe when Don actually got in and I met him, I could not hear him. His voice was so low, and he was a nice guy, I liked him. But Don had lived in his room for years. His father was an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, and Don went to school basically from his room. He did a lot of work in electronics. Whatever his father was doing, he had parts of and pieces of. He learned how to solder, and he was almost like a partner with his father on electronic projects. So I guess he started off building radios; he built all kinds of electronic stuff. But he wasn't used to talking.

I remember when we first saw him, he was in this push chair and very quiet. John wondered how he would get along, being so quiet. He could be quiet; you could be quiet; I wasn't that quiet. And then, Donald, after being there a couple of days, one day he got a power chair, one of the old-fashioned six-volt chairs that had two or three batteries. It was relatively slow but had quite a bit of power. I remember the first day, they couldn't find him after he had this power chair, and we couldn't find him.

Finally, we started searching the rooms upstairs. By that time, we were on the third floor. Then somebody opened one of the doors, and there was Donald inside this room, exhausted, because he tried to yell, but they were pretty soundproof, these rooms, and [he] just didn't know what was going to happen to him. He had gone—he could go in to doors, but the door closed behind him and he couldn't get out.

I remember.

That's one of the reasons that on my office door, I insisted that they swing both ways, that I could be sure to go in and out alone. Interesting what these experiences teach you.

Then the next day, we lost Donald again and we thought, Oh, shit, he's locked [in]. We looked for him but we couldn't find him. Later, the campus police brought him back. They brought his batteries separate. We said, "What's going on? What happened?"

They said, "We pulled him out of Strawberry Creek." I said, "Well, how did he get into Strawberry Creek?" That's not easy. But he went up to the highest hill. There's a hill, I don't remember exactly where it was, but he was playing. He was so totally elated by being able to move where his whole life he'd not been able to move more than a few inches or a few feet because he couldn't push himself. With his muscular dystrophy, he was so paralyzed that he didn't have much strength to push himself. If you're living in your room, you don't go anywhere.

And then what they said was they fished him out of the creek after realizing they had seen him up in the hills rushing down, but somehow, he yelled and got a student, and the student got the police. Here was this mild, meek guy that you couldn't even understand when he spoke, unless you got real close to his mouth, and here he was a totally changed person. All this aggressiveness and all the feelings that he'd had about being blocked, not able to move, all of a sudden he could move. And he tried everything he could think of in that chair. It did scare him to roll in the creek.

Did he fall out of his chair?

No, he didn't fall out of his chair. He was pretty lucky, actually, and that they got him. The creek was down low, and I guess it wasn't that—he just sank into some mud or something, who knows. I said, "Donald, did you actually do that?" He just got this incredible smile on his face, like, "Oh, did I love it too!" That's what he said. He said, "I didn't realize I could get into that much trouble that fast. I thought for sure I could stop, but the batteries bounced." So he lost his power.

So here was this Donald Lorence who was totally endearing to us, who had really showed us the meaning of freedom in power chairs, from someone who never moved. John and I especially were just tripped by this. All of a sudden, he started speaking so we could hear him. A lot of the ways we knew him changed so radically in a few weeks.

End of transcript

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