News-Sun photo by KATARA SIMMONS Richard Beeler uses headphones, a microphone and voice commands to work on his computer at his home in Sebring. Beeler has been paralyzed since he was 28 years old.
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published: Friday, March 08, 2013
Wheeling through life Beeler breaks ground for others
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- When Richard Beeler was 28 years old he broke his neck. He won't say what exactly happened beyond, "I was pretty frisky back then."
The injury left him a quadriplegic -- that is, his spinal cord injury affected all four of his limbs. He cannot move his legs or turn his head. His hands don't close and he can only raise his arms a couple of inches.
Now 70, he has spent the 42 years since the accident confined to his wheelchair.
This does not mean, however, his life has been confined.
In fact, he is fulfilled, content and makes a difference in this world. Odd to hear, but in many ways Beeler is grateful.
"Very few quads live to be 70," he said and smiled, adding, "I take no blood pressure medicine.
"Eighty percent is your outlook. Faith has a lot to do with it. I believe prayer makes a big difference. Talking to the Man upstairs. He can't fix problems, but He'll show you how to work your way through them. I've been much worse, but brought myself back."
Beeler, who was in the auto body business before breaking his neck, survived childhood polio and its paralysis to play football in high school.
Beeler smiled, saying after polio and the accident he became positive God meant him to live life in a wheelchair.
"I've had such a feeling it was meant to happen. That this was God's calling for me. For myself, it's been a good life."
In 1990, his life took a dramatic turn -- Congress passed the American Disabilities Act.
Beeler became active, first as a volunteer, later as executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Fort Myers. The center is a place for those with spinal injuries to gather for seminars in the latest advances, therapy, talking one-on-one with doctors, and connecting with the network of social services.
Because of the Disabilities Act, Beeler became a powerful and creative advocate in the movement to raise awareness and insure public access for the handicapped.
For example, Beeler talked the Cape Coral mayor to have city hall staff work one day exclusively in manual wheelchairs -- Beeler providing the chairs.
That day helped raise awareness, and Cape Coral is now highly handicapped accessible and a model to other communities. "You can cross every street and get into every building," Beeler said.
Beeler inspected public buildings for access under the Disabilities Act.
He often found inaccessible bathrooms, or doors with round knobs impossible to open.
The situation has improved drastically since 1992 for people in wheelchairs, Beeler said. Sebring, he added, "is ahead of some larger cities. They make a real effort, despite the older buildings.
"The Sebring Chamber of Commerce has bent over backwards for us, and the county made changes in the new government building after it was built," he added.
"It took a lot of pushing to get things done," Beeler said. "The biggest cities started first. The point was to enable those compensating for disabilities to live on their own."
Beeler sits absolutely still in his wheelchair, an automated unit operated with a lever. An observer notices only over time how unnatural his stillness is.
His face, however, is lively. He has a radiant smile, twinkling eyes, and scowls with the best of them.
What drives him crazy, he said, are people who park in handicapped zones, blocking out the people -- many with heart problems, emphysema or wheelchair bound -- for whom the spaces were intended.
"They take grandma's wheelchair (hanging sign) to go shopping," he said, his gaze fierce.
The doctors are as much to blame," Beeler said. A doctor's signature is needed to get a handicapped hanging sign, "They hand them out much too easily," he said,
Beeler asked drivers to be more aware. Please don't block the door side of clearly marked wheelchair lift vans. There are times, he explained, when his driver is forced to crawl through the rear doors to the steering wheel and back the van clear.
He also asks everyone to remember the number of wounded veterans coming home from combat, many of whom are dealing with handicaps, either temporarily or for the rest of their lives.
"It kills my heart to see these guys coming back from overseas. I know what they have to go through, I've dealt with it so long.
"The Lord's calling me. I just talk to whoever I can talk to," Beeler said.
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