New Conference Supports People With Disabilities

When Rudy Ewing had his left leg amputated below the knee last year as a result of diabetes, he felt like he had lost more than a limb. A large guy who had always thought of himself as the one who looked out for his family and friends, he was suddenly helpless and dependent. And despite the support of his wife and three children, he didn't have anyone to talk to who knew what he was dealing with.

"I didn't know anyone who had gone through anything like that," says Ewing, who lives in Karns. "I really felt isolated."

That's why Ewing will be among the speakers this Saturday at the East Tennessee Disability Conference, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 6500 S. Northshore Drive. He wants other people with disabilities to know that there are resources for them—and that one of the strongest of those resources is their own determination.

"I realized there wasn't anything I couldn't do," says Ewing, who is now back to driving, climbing stairs, and attending his children's soccer games and Scout meetings. "It was just a matter of learning to redo it."

One person who helped Ewing realize that is Gary Harmon, the cofounder of the local group Challenge Accepted, which organized this weekend's conference. Harmon, a veteran Knox County teacher and former president of the Knox County Education Association, was born with no feet, no right hand, and a deformed left hand. He says the conference will bring together 10 local nonprofit agencies that offer assistance to people with disabilities and will feature speakers ranging from Ewing and himself to an art history lecture on Vincent Van Gogh's mental illness. The goal is to let people know they are not alone.

"You know, there's war veterans coming back with disabilities, and with so many people surviving medical conditions, there's going to be more and more people with disabilities in this country," Harmon says. "What I want to do is start the conversation."

Harmon grew up in rural Middle Tennessee as the son of a military father who "thought the best thing he could teach me was to be tough. If I ever told him I couldn't do something, I would have to do it multiple times." As a result, he says, he has never felt hampered. "What exactly am I disabled from?" he asks. "I can't play piano and I can't button the top button on my collar. Well, I don't like the top button on my collar buttoned, and I don't care about playing the piano."

It wasn't until he had children of his own that Harmon started thinking more broadly about social attitudes toward disabilities. When his daughter was 6, she came running out of a bathroom at a movie theater, because she had heard women inside talking about "the man with the wooden legs" in the lobby. (Harmon has prosthetic feet.) She was embarrassed, because she hadn't known what to say.

"I said, ‘Sweetheart, you're 6 years old,'" Harmon says. "'It's not your job to make the world better for people with disabilities.' She looked up at me and said, ‘Well, whose job is it?' And I thought, oh hell, now I have to answer that. So I said, ‘I guess it's mine.'"

From that conversation came Challenge Accepted, which Harmon founded a few years ago with his friend Tim Crais. The nonprofit group has regular meetings open to anyone with any kind of disability, and offers support both practical and emotional. (The meetings are the second Thursday of every month from 6-7:30 p.m. at Cherokee Health Systems. For information, see challengeaccepted.org.)

Although the conference is being held at a church, Harmon emphasizes that it is open to everyone. "This is not a religious organization," he says. "Some people talk about faith as part of their experience, and that's fine. But we're not teaching faith, we're teaching an attitude."

Ewing started to learn that attitude when his wife suggested calling Harmon, who had been one of her teachers in high school. Harmon says he asked Ewing, "Do you want to be a person who has a disability, or do you want to be a disabled person? One of those is a physical condition, the other one is an identity."

It sank in. Ewing is now helping out at his wife's daycare service, and hopes to return to full-time employment in the future. "I think what Gary's doing, not only getting people together with disabilities, but also getting people together who have services to offer, makes a big difference in people's lives," he says. m

What: East Tennessee Disability Conference

When: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where: Westminster Presbyterian Church, 6500 S. Northshore Drive

Cost: Free