United Spinal Texas member Earle Powdrell captivated a packed ballroom at the Roll on Capitol Hill congressional awards reception in Dirksen Senate Office Building. Speaking via a voice synthesizer that read a speech he composed using eye tracking software, Powdrell, 65, an aerospace engineer, explained how his advocacy work with United Spinal has changed his life since he suffered a brain stem stroke nine years ago that left him with “locked in” syndrome.
Thank you for this award. My wife, Kathy, and I are truly honored.
In 2009, I was permanently and catastrophically disabled due to a brain stem stroke. I was left voiceless. I often say that I did not choose the stroke; the stroke chose me. But in so many ways it has brought us blessings.
I have to thank my hero, my wife, my daughters Kristen Huff and Lindsey Bachman, who are also grass root advocates. I am joined by my grandchildren here tonight. At home in Houston there are so many people who make my continued recovery possible.
Seven years ago, Rafferty Laredo, the president of United Spinal Association’s Houston chapter gave me, a voiceless disabled American, my voice back. United Spinal transformed my purpose and added to my quality of life. Today I speak. Today I am not voiceless. I am so thankful to all of you for this award.
We truly stand in the shadow of all of you. We have met so many of you through the years and we have been inspired by you and your stories. The tireless work of United Spinal serves the nation and those who roll with the highest standards a national association should aspire to. The staff, the delegates and the grass roots advocates — United Spinal’s organization serves the nation’s wheelchair community on many levels.
In a special way, we accept this award on behalf of all disabled persons and their caregivers and advocates. Without everyone here, I would not have been inspired to persevere. I am locked in.
It is a challenging journey.
Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who labored in four different concentration camps during the Holocaust said: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. … Each man is questioned by life, and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. … When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves. … Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms … to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Seven years ago, when Kathy got a call from Rafferty, our lives changed for a second time.
Finn Bullers was a fellow advocate, an editor who set a standard of what advocacy looks like. Finn put the face of a family on disability advocacy. This is an honor I never dreamed of. This is an honor that I am not worthy of.
For all disabled persons and their families, we have a unique understanding of what a changed life due to disability looks and feels like. We understand what it means to hope. We understand what it means to have courage. And, most of all, we understand what it means to have the right attitude.
As we say in my business of aerospace — failure is not an option.
Our advocacy work must continue. We have so much work to do. We must make air travel accessible and protect the ADA at any cost. I know that one voice can make a difference, but as Rafferty Laredo says, “Many voices can shout down the walls, because together we are one.” After Hurricane Harvey, United Spinal Houston served so many who had been flooded and lost their homes. Rafferty is the real hero here.
Thank you for a seat at the table. I will continue to advocate and work to share the mission of United Spinal Association: Nothing about us without us. This is a moment I will never forget.