‘Disabled’ but clearly able - long version

Lauri Evans doesn’t let being blind get in the way of helping others to succeed

Lauri Evans spends most of her days in her cozy office on the Chico State campus. Her days are full-she’s training employees, responding to e-mails, answering phone calls … and occasionally checking on Vashti, her guide dog, who patiently basks in the afternoon sunshine.

Despite being blind, Evans, 44, is a typical woman: she’s dressed to a T, her hair is flawless, and she is decorated in enough gold jewelry to sink a pirate ship. She has a comedic approach toward life and a contagious smile.

Evans was born with a genetic disorder called coloboma, causing underdevelopment of the eyes and leaving her legally blind at the age of 14. Because of the rare disease, Evans was also born with no left fibula and a malformed foot, causing her to use a prosthetic leg. Though she has lived with her disabilities for most of her life, she said it has not stopped her from living each day to the fullest.

As a coordinator for Chico State’s Disabilities Support Services for about 10 years, Evans said her job is the best one on campus.

Evans hires and trains groups of students to work one-on-one with students with disabilities who need academic assistance on things such as lab work, testing or research. She and her employees also provide electronic formats of books to those who are learning-disabled or blind. This is one of the many important steps in giving disabled students the chance to have the same college experience as everyone else, she said.

“I get to support them in their challenges and their success,” she said. “And that’s really exciting for me.”

Many students who work at DSS decide to change their majors or change their career path completely after finding that they have a talent for working with disabled people.

“I like knowing that people get more out of this job than just a paycheck,” Evans said. “And I just love having smart students around!”

Because employment rates among the disabled are significantly lower than for those without disabilities, Evans said it’s important that they receive the best education possible. DSS makes that possible.

Providing these types of accommodations helps resolve accessibility issues on campus and breaks the barriers that prevent disabled people from succeeding, she said. Evans encourages people to look beyond their disability-to go dancing, to get a job and to buy a house-do everything they want to do.

Prior to working for DSS, Evans served as an advocate for people with disabilities for about five years, working to make sure the disabled were given appropriate accommodations for accessibility, housing and transportation.

But she said none of it would have been possible without the love and support of her family and friends, whom she considers her most important support group. Evans has been married to her husband, Jim, for about eight years. She has three children, Schuyler, 19; Aaron, 6; and Jenae, 3.

Lauri and Jim met in Arcata while both attending Humboldt State, Jim said. The thing that first attracted him to Lauri was her passion and thoughtfulness.

“She’s always been so passionate about her beliefs,” he said. “And she believes so much in helping others.”

Lauri’s family members do the best they can to help her out, but Jim said his wife has always been very independent, and her daily routine isn’t much different from anyone else’s.

Evans takes public transportation to work and uses her guide dog to get around, but other than that, her days are pretty typical of a working parent. Evans is working on her master’s degree in public administration at Chico State. Finding time to work on her degree is difficult between work and raising a family, she said.

“I work all day and then I go home and work the ‘p.m. shift,’ “ she said. “I pick up after my kids, make their dinner and spend quality time with them.”

Evans said she has raised her children to understand that she “sees with her hands.” She has also taught them to observe the world around them and try to accept everyone’s differences.

While Evans is a very independent woman, she said she does partially depend on her husband and children to do chores like laundry, cleaning up and grocery shopping.

“My husband does all the grocery shopping, because it would take me much longer,” she said.

Living with a blind person, it is important to remember to do small things, like closing cupboard doors, Jim said.

“We have to do everything with much consideration,” he said. “We want to make sure she’s comfortable in her own space.”

While most people coordinate their outfits by color and style, Evans said she depends on zippers, buttons and pockets to determine what to wear every morning-and only relies on her husband to help match socks.

“Guys are not the people to ask for fashion help,” Evans said. “I rely on my friends to tell me if something doesn’t match.”

Along with the help of her family, Evans is able to complete daily tasks easily with modern technology. She can send and receive e-mail, browse the net, manage data and work with all types of documents on her computer thanks to a screen reader and voice synthesizer, which reads words to her at an incredibly rapid speed.

“Some people really believe computers shouldn’t talk,” Evans said.

Though Evans may use different technology to work and learn, she said people with disabilities are just like everyone else, and should be treated as such.

“People with disabilities are very perceptive,” she said. “We can tell when someone is freaked out by being around a disabled person.”

Disabled people can become very alienated if they feel that others are scared or uncomfortable with their disability, she said. This can cause them to become unable to carry on conversation or conduct business.

Evans offered a few ways to become more comfortable around people with disabilities, including asking the person if they need help. If someone seems to be having trouble, casually ask if they need assistance without forcing yourself on them, she said.

She also recommends that people try their best to view disabled people the same way they do their friends, family, customers or any other person.

“You should see how foolish people scatter in a crowd when a wheelchair user or blind person with a cane wants to get by-it’s as if someone with the plague was coming through,” she said. “Yes, wheelchairs require extra room, but the disability is not contagious!”

In addition, Evans said people need not speak louder to those who are blind or emphasize words for those who read lips. Being yourself will put everyone at ease, she said.

Evans has several student employees who specialize in helping fellow students who have disabilities.

Jack Bugbee, one of Evans’ employees, seems to know better than anyone how to interact with a disabled person. His older sister is severely disabled. He has worked alongside Evans for about seven months as a book scanner, and said she’s one of the best bosses he’s ever had.

“She’s very aware of what’s going on,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to get her down.”

Though some may consider Evans to be highly vulnerable in a society of able-bodied people, she said her challenges and fears are probably the same as everyone else’s.

“I don’t really fear my blindie-related things, like getting lost in an unfamiliar place,” she said. “I’ve been lost many times before, and I haven’t died from it thus far.”

Being open and honest about her challenges in life is one of Evans’ best traits, said Kourtney Jason, a student assistant who has worked with Evans for five semesters.

“She’s a great example of what someone who’s overcome a lot of obstacles can do with their lives,” she said.

Evans never seems to be down about her disability, Jason said.

“She’s got her own way of life, and she’s grown accustomed to living with a disability,” she said. “Plus she’s got so much support all around her, from family, friends and technology.”

Dedicated guide dogs, like her 3-year-old black lab, have been instrumental in her success in life, Evans said.

Evans was taught independence by her first guide dog, which she received when she lost her sight at 14.

“For the first time, I was able to walk with my head held high,” she said. “I realized that being blind wasn’t so terrible.”

Between work, family and a master’s degree, there is a lot going on in Evans’ life. But at the end of the day, she doesn’t consider herself a superwoman-all she wants is to be herself and encourage others with disabilities to do the same.

“I did go through a time where I tried to be a ‘super blindie,'" she said. "Eh … that’s a lot of work. I can spend my energy more effectively in other ways."