Virgil Edwards of Disability Action Center NW
By Kaye Hult of The Fig Tree
When people who have disabilities contact the Disability Action Center NW (DAC) for assistance, they often hope the DAC will solve their problems for them, said Virgil Edwards, one of the independent living advocates in the Post Falls office.
Instead they learn that DAC expects to help them help themselves.
“We’re peers not professionals,” he said. “We just provide resources.”
“DAC is an independent living center,” said Virgil. “We give people information so they can take care of their own issues. We’re a conduit. The idea is to give people the power.”
Virgil’s can-do attitude stands him in good stead as he works with clients. He has suffered for a long time with disabilities of his own—bi-polar disorder and physical problems. They could be roadblocks to him, but he has taken the time to re-think how to keep moving ahead with his life and has made adaptations necessary to do that.
He uses himself as an example with his clients, helping them realize they have what it takes to advocate for themselves and achieve their goals.
As members of the staff in the three DAC locations in Lewiston, Moscow and Post Falls, Virgil can offer a wide range of services to those he assists.
DAC’s specialties are individual and community advocacy, information about and referral on a variety of topics, independent living skills, businesses and government, communication services, community involvement, housing advocacy and assistance, peer advocacy counseling and transportation services.
Staff keep up with resources available in their areas. They also advocate for a community more inclusive of those with disabilities.
Virgil was born in Colorado, the third child in his family. When he was young, the family moved to Spokane.
His mother was religious and read the Bible over and over. She was brought up Catholic, but never found a denomination that worked for her, he said. She wanted him to become a preacher.
“I had no interest in church, which disappointed her,” he said. “Still, she tried to make me a good person and teach me from the Bible. I learned, but did not become Christian.”
His mother, who had diabetes, sought to help people with similar issues. Virgil described her as tough and strong.
“I never got into much trouble,” he said. “I was more afraid of Mom than cops. I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
Growing up in a working class group, he began working in grade school peeling potatoes at the Star Grill Cafe. Soon, he did everything but cooking. Agnes, the owner, became like a second mother, influencing him to move forward with his life.
“She was tough. If I wanted stuff, I had to earn it,” said Virgil, who worked there until he graduated from Ferris High School in 1968.
He began working at odd jobs. For many years, he put in sprinkler systems. When he developed a bad back, he persevered until he found other work. He realized he didn’t have to do physical labor.
“All along, I had used what I had learned to help others who were working for me,” he said. “It was natural. I wasn’t anybody special.
“I could see what other people were doing and help them more than I could see my own strengths. Without realizing it, I did mental work— planning, sales and designing systems.”
He began working for SL Start, where he helped clients with disabilities find employment. The Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation sent him clients.
“I led them to realize they had many strengths and then trained them in new skills for new work,” he said.
About 15 years into his job, he saw an ad saying DAC needed help.
“If I wanted to move forward in my life, I needed to re-think my abilities,” he said. “I had to figure out how to sell myself to a prospective employer.”
He had met Mark Leeper, the executive director of DAC, while working for SL Start. He also was familiar with the Coeur d’Alene DAC and its former manager.
He contacted Mark, who hired him part time at first, then full time, in part because of his understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.
“I was hired in 2008 to make it an independent living center,” he said.
Virgil has helped the center transition into a place that empowers people to do for themselves. He uses his own physical and mental disabilities as an example from which his clients can learn.
“I saw myself overcoming different things and mental health issues,” he said. “It seemed I had much against me, but I never saw it that way. I am still able to hold jobs and succeed.
“I know where a disabled person is coming from,” he said. “I know to begin with little steps and move from there to big ones.”
He and his co-workers investigate things withindividuals rather than forthem. Sometimes people with disabilities run into roadblocks and think DAC will help with lawsuits. It does not, but refers them to a lawyer. If a client doesn’t have a computer at home, Virgil informs them of the computer access at the library.
For people who have no money, DAC can give or lend assistive devices it keeps on hand.
Having moved several times in Coeur d’Alene, DAC moved to Post Falls in 2016. They purchased the building at 3726 E. Mullan Ave.
Already outgrowing that building, they have added staff, and are branching out to work in Spokane.
DAC’s advocacy extends beyond helping individuals. They also work for changes at the community, state and national levels to remove physical, communication and attitude barriers for people with disabilities. They strive to gain community support for independence and to include people with disabilities in community life.
In October 2018, DAC recognized Paul Kinney, public works maintenance manager for the City of Post Falls, and his staff for supporting those with disabilities by working with the Post Falls community to make travel by wheelchair easier.
Recently, they presented the City Council with the Tom McTevia Memorial Award for going above and beyond with proper snow removal and putting in more sidewalks.
“Post Falls is making many changes because it is growing fast,” Virgil said.
In November 2018, DAC hosted a National Career Mentoring Day at Spokane Community College for students ages 16 to 24 with a disability. Students shadowed the career of their choice, giving them a chance to test drive their dream job.
In January 2019, the Moscow office of DAC hosted a celebration to reintroduce the Disability Integration Act (DIA) in Congress. The bill ensures people with disabilities can live in freedom in their communities.
It received bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House in Congress in 2018. He hopes that results of the midterm elections mean an opportunity has opened for the bill to pass this year.
From 4 to 6:45 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 7, Lewiston’s DAC office will show the film, “Ride with Larry,” at the Lewiston City Library, 411 D St. The documentary follows Larry Smith, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than 20 years ago, as he does one last big thing: ride his bike 300 miles across his state, South Dakota, to inspire other people living with Parkinson’s and show that sometimes the best cure is to live life to the fullest.
In the middle of 2018, Virgil suffered a stroke. He has returned to the office, having asked, “How do I get past this?” His answer: “Retrain myself and keep moving forward.”
His stroke has made office staff stronger as a group, he said.
“Even negative issues can turn out to be positive,” he said. “I try to set my day and not let life dictate to me.”
Virgil continually exhibits that can-do attitude to his clients, inviting them to adopt it too.
For information, call 208-664-9896 or 800-854-9500 or email email@example.com.