Body of workStudent Scapes, Top Reads — March 20, 2012
Photography by Robert Whitehead
Without much fanfare or stories splashed about the local newspapers, Chris Russell, your typical unknown, determined, 50-something master’s student, has managed, somehow, to book speaking engagements at the University of New Mexico and the University of Oklahoma. These are stops along the way as he sets out from Santa Monica on April 20 to ride Route 66.
But Russell, a Cal State San Bernardino student, hopes that the anonymity ends soon. Fueling his efforts to raise funds and sponsors for his Minds do Matter motorcycle ride falls under his larger goal to raise awareness about employing people with disabilities.
As the country languishes in an 8.3 percent unemployment rate, unemployment among Americans with disabilities skies at 64 percent, says Russell. He cites the Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute study done in 2009. The numbers can vary among research agencies and organizations. But Russell believes that the Cornell study is a reliable and objective source.
A talented and routinely underrated workforce is largely ignored, he says. Many of these workers may not have the soundest bodies, but they do have minds that work as well – and often better – than any other, says Russell, who graduated from CSUSB with his B.A. in communication studies in 2007.
In the fall of 1988, Russell almost died from injuries he suffered in a plane crash. The two-seater Aeronca, in which he was a passenger, had just taken off from Hesperia Airport when the plane lost lift and smashed into a hill. The crash claimed nine months of Russell’s memory before the accident and two or three months of his memory afterward. He woke up with an arm, leg, neck and hip all in braces.
For about 15 years, Russell wore what he called “Herman Munster shoes,” because they were so large. Leg braces helped him walk. Before the crash, Russell had been a decorated police officer, having earned a valor award and several commendations with the Los Angeles County Safety Police Department. But he also had been a dancer, played handball and racquetball and loved to run.
“Once the airplane crash hit me it ruined my body in so many ways,” says Russell. “It took from 1988 to about 2001 to be put together well enough that I could go out and start doing things. That’s the reason why if I wasn’t resting up from an operation I was waiting for an operation. I was just trying to heal.”
As Russell began to function closer to “normal,” he was itching for something to do. He went to the San Bernardino County Department of Rehabilitation, where he took test after test and was fully convinced he’d have to get a job “putting doll heads on dolls.”
But the tests sent things a different way.
The rehabilitation department offered him, instead, the chance to attend Cal State San Bernardino – all expenses paid. He began in the winter of 2003 and graduated from the university four years later. After a temporary health setback late last year, he was accepted into CSUSB’s master’s program in communication studies.
Despite the physical limitations and the daily battles against pain, Russell still moves about. That’s the message in his journey, he says, the message he’s hoping to get across to employers, the message that his wife, MaryAnn, encouraged him to put on his Minds do Matter business card. “Just because your body is broken, doesn’t mean your mind is.”
“It’s to show that a handicapped person – and I hate that word – a person who society perceives as ‘handicapped,’ is capable of doing things,” says Russell. While working on his bachelor’s, he says, the work involved in going to school was just a bit harder for those with disabilities. “There was always that extra bump in the road … Every student that’s handicapped that graduates from here did what every normal student did, plus that bump in the road.”
The able mind of the so-called “disabled” is what Russell hopes employers will see in a way they’ve never seen it before. His website, Mindsdomatter.org, puts the idea front and center. Since CSUSB instructor and media production specialist, Michael Wichman, helped Russell launch the site in December, Lake Los Angeles resident, Max Coleman, has been providing the tech support, getting him on Facebook and Twitter.
When he leaves April 20, Russell will ride a vintage Valkyrie, a 1997 1500 cc high-performance motorcycle made by Honda. Last year, he purchased it from a Van Nuys man, who sold it to Russell for $1,000 less than the original asking price after Russell told him how he was going to use the bike. Russell also has secured a sponsorship from B&B Motorcycles in Victorville. He’ll pull in to the University of New Mexico to speak on April 25 and 26, and then head to the University of Oklahoma before he ends his 14-day ride on the Mother Road in Chicago.