Until a summer Friday in 1987 Torrey Westrom had a running start on a typical rural Minnesota life. He was a 14-year-old jock growing up on a farm near Elbow Lake in south central Minnesota. He figured on playing sports in college and planned to become a coach after graduating. But the hay had been cut that week and if it was ready to bale, he would have to miss playing in the tennis tournament at Elbow Lake’s centennial celebration.
As most teenage farm boys do, he would have rather spent the day on the tennis courts than out in the hay fields, but, again, as most teenage farm boys know, work comes before play. So he hopped in the family Chevy around 10 am and drove the few winding and hilly miles to check the hay. While he was on the road he lost control of the car, rolling it over, fracturing his skull in six spots and causing a stroke of the optic nerve, leaving him blind.
“Before the accident, you had a jock who wanted to be a college ball player and a coach. He didn’t like speaking in front of people,” says Westrom, now a Republican representative for district 11A, 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. “Losing my sight got me involved in speech and interested in government and debate. So … it forced some changes in life that prepared me for politics.”
Being a tight end or linebacker was no longer an option for Westrom. Accepting and adapting to his newly edited set of abilities was, ultimately, the only practical option—though not without a fight. “My first week back to school was a tearful experience. I was trying to adapt [back] into normalcy and at the same time learn new ways [of living],” Westrom says. His vision teacher helped him take the daily steps to adapt, and also helped his teachers learn how to make adaptations for their first blind student.
Six weeks after his accident, the wrestling coach approached him. “Hey, you can still wrestle. You gotta come out for wrestling.” He sold the concept to Westrom and then went to work on learning what he and the team needed to do in order to have a blind team member. “Time heals everything,” his coach told him.
“It heals much,” Westrom says, trying to emphasize the positive. “But it has not changed my disability. I used to hope when I closed my eyes I’d be able to see when I opened them again. But my blindness was always there,” he says. “Through high school I hoped it would [go away by] now.”
His hope for a miracle eventually gave way to learning how to live effectively with his disability. He learned Braille and how to use adaptive technology to restore access for him to written material. “I found most folks are ready to adapt to make things work. However, many times I did depend on my own ingeniousness to figure new ways to adapt.” Wardrobe became a real issue when he first got elected. “I couldn’t wear jeans and a polo shirt [everyday].” He started by sewing Teflon tape encoded with Braille information into his shirts, suits and ties to help him match colors. This worked fine … until his wardrobe came back from the dry cleaners with the Teflon taped ironed smooth. Now he employs the magic of Velcro to remove the information before the cleaners can iron it smooth.
Westrom helps his colleagues in the House of Representatives understand how they can help make their body more hospitable to folks with disabilities. “At many legislative meetings people bring handouts to read, but I don’t have the luxury of just picking up and scanning through them during the initial moments of each meeting.” Westrom needs them in advance so he can review them electronically. Most documents are already on a computer, ready to be useful for Westrom if his colleagues remember to email them. “People are willing to make changes that increase accessibility,” says Westrom, “if they have the opportunity to learn what changes are needed. The more I can casually be around people, the more comfortable they are.”
People are, by and large, willing to accept him, but they are often apprehensive or scared of the unknown. He says people simply don’t understand disabilities. “Some people with disabilities get angry if they are asked a dumb question or they are offered help.” When it’s more often than not merely an attempt to understand.
Westrom takes the approach of nurturing people toward understanding. “That becomes a part of my job and a part of people with disabilities’ job to make connections and have an honest dialogue—not set it up to find fault with people who don’t know how to respond to disabilities.”
Being engaged with local organizations—Rotary or Lions clubs, for example—offers an educational process for people who haven’t known someone with a disability. Westrom’s amiability has helped his friends see disability differently than they would if he weren’t blind. After initial awkwardness, “… it’s no big deal; they just offer me their elbow and we just go. Interaction has a big benefit for society. We educate them just by our presence.” He says there is a role for public policy in nurturing understanding. Even though he is “not a mandate kinda’ guy … sometimes you need that legal stick to help people realize there is potential among people with disabilities to be great citizens and great employees.”
Westrom brings a clear objective to his job as lawmaker. “My philosophy is that we need to do what we can to make it possible for people [with disabilities] to participate in society. That is how we need to focus policy.” With that focus and seven years of experience in the State House, Westrom will be moving some objectives for disabilities in the year or two ahead. He looks for opportunities to create incentives for employing people with disabilities. He’d consider policy tools like tax credits. “We do a good job of training people with disabilities, but we need businesses to realize the value of people with disabilities. We won’t achieve it by standing up in a room of 500 people and saying we should do this. It’s the grass roots involvement of small, local communities and concerted involvement with the Chambers of Commerce. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you give up on the American dream of financial independence. But it is hard to find good opportunities. I’ve heard there is 70-80% unemployment among people with disabilities.”
Transportation is another interest of Westrom’s. “I think Metro Mobility does not work as well as it can. I have been a proponent of integrating the cab system into Metro Mobility, but we have a bureaucracy that is resistant to change.” Westrom wants to consider private options to improve transportation. “I understand there were some problems years ago with cab participation, but we can work those out. Metro Mobility has trouble coordinating rides; we can do better.”
In high school and college, Westrom learned the importance of making textbooks accessible. So he would like to see publishers put textbooks into accessible form and then distribute them to schools and universities. “I couldn’t just flip open a textbook at 10 o’clock the night before a class. I had to plan ahead to get it on tape.” Instead of each state and university doing their own recording or transcribing of each textbook, he’d like lawmakers to nudge publishers to make the transcriptions.
Most teenagers don’t foresee themselves holding a position powerful enough to impact the lives of an entire culture, and being a minority representative wasn’t the future career 14-year-old Torrey Westrom had envisioned for himself. Today he says, “Representing people with disabilities is just naturally a part of my job.” He’s a fighter and a debater who enjoys what he does. The sign on the wall of his office reads, “Arguing with a Westrom is like wrestling with a pig in the mud … after a while you realize the pig enjoys it.”