Paralyzed veterans in Oregon push for better awareness

ALBANY — Angie Tunnissen thinks that Oregon and the mid-valley in particular have come a long way in the past 30 years when it comes to recognizing the needs of the handicapped.

But that doesn't mean things can't get better.

To get that message across, the Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America, which includes Tunnissen on its board of directors, is contacting cities all over the state.

"What the message is about isn't to complain," said Tunnissen, 56, who lives in Lebanon. "It's to educate."

The OPVA is approaching cities with a resolution it has developed asking each one to observe July as Accessibility Awareness Month. Tangent was the first to sign on with the recognition.

In late June the city approved the resolution after a presentation by the OPVA. Created by OPVA member Charles Keen of Salem, it calls for extra support for people with disabilities.

Sidewalk improvements, entry ways, ramps and restroom access are night and day compared with where they were 30 years ago, Tunnissen said. "Oregon has made incredible strides," she said. "Most of what I deal with now is small in comparison."

Still, little things can cause problems. Tunnissen said restroom doorways are often a struggle, particularly in restaurants. Her wheelchair doesn't fit behind shopping carts very well either.

"I have to leave the cart to get groceries sometimes and people have thought it was abandoned and put all my groceries away," she said.

Some sidewalks cause trouble, too. Tunnissen said even handicap improvements are difficult to negotiate because of a slight lip that makes it tricky to maneuver her wheelchair from the street back up to the walk.

Wheelchair-bound since a motorcycle accident in 1983 near Camp Pendleton in San Diego, she had served as marine sergeant and communications instructor on amphibious tractors. The crash changed that, leaving her with slight brain damage and a severed spinal cord.

She came back to Oregon in 1985 and raised two children, Liana and Joshua. She also encountered the typical struggles that face the disabled.

"When I was first injured, getting around was a problem," she said. "Stairs, doors, sidewalks ... everything was a barrier," Tunnissen said. "The improvements have been tremendous. The issues are smaller now."

One of those "smaller issues" deals with parking. Tunnissen, who drives a modified van for the handicapped, said the side door access, which includes an automatic ramp, is designed for specific parking areas.

"People don't realize that the striped grid next to a handicapped parking area provides room to get out of the car," she said. "If someone parks over the striped area by just an inch I can't get out of the van."

She is hoping the awareness initiative also will reach people on a more personal level. Tunnissen said that handicapped people still receive an awkward form of discrimination.

"I've had people turn away or tell their kids to avoid me. Sometimes those are kids who know me from volunteering at school so it's confusing for them," she said. "I would hope through awareness more people will see that we're a lot like them. We won't hurt anyone."

Along with family, many in the community have offered support. A group from Home Depot that included veterans built her a wheelchair-accessible deck and ramp. With help from the Veterans Administration, she upgraded from a push wheelchair to a motorized one in 1995.

"Things like that have made me much more self-sufficient," Tunnissen said.

And she believes proclamations such as the ones the OPVA are promoting can only help.

"It's good to know cities are responding. The OPVA has made a difference," Tunnissen said. "Maybe people who are curious will react differently because of it. We aren't deaf, dumb or blind and we don't mind if you stare, but if you are curious ask questions. Most of us won't have a problem talking to you."

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