When Gordon Armstrong walks downtown in Eugene, not everybody greets him and pats him on the back. He’s gangly, walks with a stagger and a shuffle, and people who don’t know him might think he’s intoxicated, homeless, maybe dangerous. But he reminds people that he’s “a human being.”
Armstrong wrote a letter to EW that was printed July 25, saying, “I am a man of color, disabled and have a disabled bus pass. I have survived four strokes and, a year and a half ago, a coma. My obvious disabilities are speech and mobility. My diabetic blood sugar levels affect my coordination — and combined with neuropathy, degenerative disc disease and one leg longer than the other, plus slurred speech, I look drunk!”
Armstrong has had several encounters with local people and agencies in which he believes he has been discriminated against based on his appearance and demeanor, and has decided to actively campaign against the stigma of disability and mental illness. But his intensity and strong convictions are not always met with understanding and compassion.
He was kicked off an LTD bus earlier this summer after an incident with an LTD employee. “Mr. Armstrong’s behavior led the security staff to believe he needed assistance,” says Andy Vobora, LTD’s director of customer services and planning. “When approached to discuss his needs, Mr. Armstrong’s behavior became threatening and he was denied services. As part of the denial of services process, Mr. Armstrong was invited to a reinstatement hearing at which time his riding privileges were restored.”
Vobora says LTD is “very sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities and the staff works hard to ensure the safety of all customers,” but Armstrong wrote that “my human rights, civil rights and my constitutional rights were attacked, defiled, raped and murdered by officers of Lane Transit District.”
Armstrong has been making his way around to local media, talking to whoever will listen, and says he’s had helpful conversations at The Register-Guard, but got a less than friendly response at the offices of KEZI-TV, where he was confronted at the reception desk by a “rather large, rude, uneducated, unethical, unmannered ne’er-do-well,” and security called the police on him. KEZI declined to comment on the incident.
“Gordon is a very brave man,” says Jose Soto, executive director of the Lane County office of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “I am very proud to have people like Gordon involved with advocacy in our community. I continue to have hope for Gordon’s efforts in bringing awareness to the community.”
Soto says people “who have to deal with this type of discrimination on a regular basis are at much higher risk for experiencing mental health issues than the general population,” and due to lack of family support and education, “many people with mental health issues and other disabilities can become at risk for homelessness, physical health issues and early death.”
NAMI has a public education program called “In Our Own Voice” where speakers share their personal stories about living with mental illness and achieving recovery. For information, contact Soto at 343-7688 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.