A Voice for the Voiceless

By Don Colburn, The Oregonian, April 14, 2002

Laddie Read at a Multnomah County mental health panel meeting in 2002.

Laddie Read at a Multnomah County mental health panel meeting in 2002.

The man in navy sweats and white sneakers perches on his motorized cart, listening hard. His left hand — the one that works — clutches a copy of an agenda he cannot read.

“Yeah! Yeah!” he bellows from the back of the room when anyone says something he likes.

“Spkup! Spkup! I deaf!”

“Sorry, Laddie,” a council member says, speaking up.

Someone mentions the need for low-cost housing, and Laddie Read nearly leaps off his cart. “Yeah! Housing! Yeah!” He pounds the handle bars with his left fist and delivers a thumbs-up to the audience, which has turned its attention to him.

He’s 56. Balding beneath his Portland Speedway cap, with short gray hair on the sides. Glasses.

He’s missing several front teeth. Laddie has trouble shaving, and sometimes his breath reeks. Occasionally, he drools.

For most of the first half of his life, Laddie lived in institutions, including more than 15 years at Oregon Fairview Home in Salem.

These days, however, Laddie’s singular voice makes itself heard in Multnomah County on every hot-button issue involving care of the mentally ill and disabled. As a self-appointed public watchdog, he weighs in on curb cuts and budget cuts, bus routes and bigotry, housing and police — even the width of county office doorways.

So Laddie is first up for public comment on the Multnomah County mental health plan. He walks unsteadily over to county Chairwoman Diane Linn, hands her a printout and points at her. Then he sits down at the committee table as Linn dutifully reads aloud.

“Stop!” he says suddenly. He’s up out of his seat, on his clumsy feet, waving his good hand. The words come out blurred.

Linn does her best to translate. “Why am I afraid?” she guesses.

“No!” He’s ranting.

Laddie Read at Multnomah County mental health panel meeting with Jim Gaynor in 2002.

Laddie Read at Multnomah County mental health panel meeting with Jim Gaynor in 2002.

“Five times!” Laddie shouts. People around the room try to interpret. “He’s talking about the police,” one says. “No, he means nobody ever calls him back,” somebody else offers.

Laddie alternately stabs the air and slams the table with his left hand.

“Sorry” he says. “Over-passionate.”

“That’s OK, Laddie,” Linn says, trying to wrap things up. He has overshot his time limit.

“No! Read all,” he insists, and Linn continues. His text brings up the shooting death of a Mexican national by police last year at a Portland psychiatric hospital.

Laddie interrupts again. “How feel about police?” he asks Linn.

“How feel?” he repeats. A murmur ripples through the room, as onlookers realize this unpolished outsider has the county’s top official on the spot.

“What gonna do?” He tries once more, then shrugs.

“Thank you so much for your statement,” Linn says.

Laddie totters back to his cart. He’s grinning, though it’s hard to tell if he’s pleased or furious.

He was born outdoors in the middle of a February night, a month-and-a-half premature.

His parents lived at North Portland’s Columbia Villa housing complex. His father was sick in bed with pneumonia, and his mother went outside to get coal for the furnace. As she lugged the bucket back, she recalled, she felt sharp pain and fell to the ground.

Moments later, she gave birth to her first child, Laddie Read Jr. He had a big blue spot on the left side of his head.

By the time Laddie was 6 or 7 months old, his mother knew something was seriously wrong. He couldn’t crawl. He struggled to move by lying on his back and pushing with his hands.

Laddie Read, born with cerebral palsy, has trouble talking, but he still makes his point on redesigning the county mental health system.

Laddie Read, born with cerebral palsy, has trouble talking, but he still makes his point on redesigning the county mental health system.

The doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy, a form of brain damage that occurs during or near birth. Today he would be called a child with special needs. During the late 1940s and 1950s, he was labeled a feeble-minded cripple.

Cerebral palsy occurs when something — a traumatic premature delivery, a seizure, a deformity — cuts off the brain’s supply of oxygen. “It’s the same thing that could happen to you right now if you got hit on the head or had a stroke,” says Bud Thoune, director of United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon, who has known Laddie since 1973.

The disability depends on which brain cells are destroyed. Slurred speech and difficulty walking are common.

Two public schools rejected Laddie. Other children, including his two younger sisters, teased him cruelly, Laddie remembers. “Call me cripple,” he says. “Retard. Idiot. Stupid ass. Worse.”

It was a different time. Mainstreaming was almost unheard of. Children seen as abnormal were routinely sent to institutions. On a doctor’s recommendation, Laddie’s parents sent him to a Eugene foster home and then to the Children’s Hospital School there. And in 1956, at age 10, he was committed to Fairview.

The psychologist who examined Laddie when he got to Fairview described him as a spastic quadriplegic moron with an IQ of 52 and a mental age of 6.

Yet even in the clinical lingo of generation-old medical charts are hints of the middle-aged Laddie. “Pleasant child with a sharp temper,” a teacher wrote. “Seems to have strong motivation.”

A few years later, his psychologist concluded: “From overall behavior one suspects that Laddie understands much more than he can readily express . . . He is easily frustrated by his own inarticulateness.”

But Laddie was destined to live the rest of his life at Fairview, the psychologist said, because it was “highly unlikely that he will display any appreciable increase in intellectual functioning.” Another called him “well institutionalized.”

Laddie Read reacts to revisiting former his home at Fairview in Salem. The sign in background says: "Hospital of the feeble minded. Erected 1919."

Laddie Read reacts to revisiting former his home at Fairview in Salem. The sign in background says: "Hospital of the feeble minded. Erected 1919."

As national attitudes toward mental disabilities and institutionalization changed, so did the tone in Laddie’s medical chart. By 1966, when he was 20, a teacher noted: “He is bright and ambitious and needs a better environment.” A psychologist found it “quite possible that on some of the things which we cannot measure with a psychological test he is not very far below normal.”

Yet at 22, Laddie still functioned at a first-grade level. And still languished at Fairview.

“His great asset is his friendliness and pleasant disposition and his indomitable spirit, prompting him to work and try hard in face of odds that would discourage many a brave soul,” a psychological evaluation found. But it also doubted he could ever live independently.

Laddie was expelled from a sheltered workshop in Corvallis because he fell often and bothered others by drooling. A doctor noted that Laddie’s “long period of institutionalization coupled with his physical limitations have resulted in a spoiled individual who is somewhat unable to accept the status quo.”

Five years later, Laddie’s caregivers reversed themselves. With deinstitutionalization in full swing, they decided that if Laddie was to make progress, he needed to leave.

Laddie’s Fairview file closed on July 6, 1973, with a note from the superintendent that he was “no longer a fit subject for this institution.”

He was 27.

He lives with his calico cat, Ollie, in a one-bedroom Southeast Portland duplex. There’s a Douglas fir in the front yard, a wooden ramp up to his porch and a computer printout of the American flag taped to the door.

It’s the first place Laddie could ever call his own. After Fairview, he lived in group homes and apartments.

The rent is $550. Laddie pays $114 and the Housing Authority of Portland pays the rest. His monthly income consists of $688 in Social Security disability payments, plus $24 in food stamps.

With Joy'e Wilman, Laddie Read reacts to revisiting his home at Fairview in Salem.

With Joy'e Wilman, Laddie Read reacts to revisiting his home at Fairview in Salem.

The living room serves as Laddie’s office and garage, housing his Dell computer and his wheels: a fold-up wheelchair and two battery-powered scooters, a big four-wheel model he uses for shopping and a three-wheeler that fits on the bus.

In his tiny bedroom, a triangular handle bar dangles like a miniature playground swing. He grips it with his left hand to hoist himself into and out of bed. Beside the bed is a Sony boombox and a 27-inch television. Four banners — Blazers, Globetrotters, Winter Hawks and Portland Pride — and two photos of the Blue Angels jets decorate the walls. Laddie likes war movies. His taste in music runs to oldies on KISN-FM.

Laddie gets a daily food delivery from Loaves & Fishes. He doesn’t cook, except in the microwave. The burners on his stove are covered for safety.

His paralysis is mainly on the right side. Laddie’s right hand is frozen in a fist. He walks with a sway-and-wobble, on tiptoe with his feet splayed. The bones in both feet were surgically fused when he was a teen-ager to keep the feet from flip-flopping, but Laddie still falls a lot because his footsteps don’t land flat.

He can recognize and print his name and read simple numbers. He tells time by his digital wristwatch.

“I’m not smart guy,” Laddie says. “But not stupid guy! Hard time words.”

Cerebral palsy sometimes causes significant cognitive impairment — trouble thinking and remembering. But Laddie’s cognitive loss is minimal and his intelligence average, says Douglas Koeckkoeck, his doctor.

“He’s got the words right there in his brain,” Koeckkoeck says. “He just has trouble coordinating his voice box and his mouth to make them come out.”

Because Laddie lived outside the mainstream for so long, it’s hard to sort out his physical disability from the effects of his confinement at Fairview. “He wasn’t taught,” says United Cerebral Palsy’s Thoune. “He was just kind of there.”

Even simple words are tongue twisters for Laddie. “Thank you” comes out “Ank woo.”

He speaks in idioms, delivered dead-on with keen facial expressions and left-hand gestures: “Off my back.” “Big deal.” “From Day 1.” “Heart on my sleeve.” “Catch-22.” “Old dog new tricks.” “You, me, lamppost.” “Hit nail head.” “Bark wrong tree.” “Dream on.”

And his favorite: “Walk my shoes.”

Laddie Read, right, and Multnomah County Chairwoman and Mental Health Panel Chairman Diane Linn at a meeting

Laddie Read, right, and Multnomah County Chairwoman and Mental Health Panel Chairman Diane Linn at a meeting

Joy’e Willman, his caregiver for the past five years, lives down the block. She has known Laddie since they were neighbors in the 1970s, when she was a teen-ager and he had just left Fairview. Seeing Laddie wheel by on his scooter, she’d say a little prayer to herself: “Help me find a way to help him.”

Willman spends about 15 hours a week with Laddie, paid by the state. She makes appointments for him and helps him with dishes, bills and e-mail.

What’s it like to walk in Laddie Read’s shoes?

“Strap down your right wrist so you can’t move your hand,” Willman says. “Put on knee braces so your legs barely work. Put marbles in your mouth, so your tongue can’t form words. Then take the Hawthorne bus downtown and try to get through the day.”

Ask county Chairwoman Linn. Ask any council member. Ask Human Services Director John Ball. Ask their staffs.

They all know Laddie, who rarely goes by his last name. They’ve all been harangued by this illiterate gadfly — and discovered he’s smarter than they thought.

“Laddie helps keep the system honest,” says Scott Snedecor, Multnomah County’s consumer liaison for mental health. “He brings people back to the idea that, as the meetings drag on and the bureaucracy moves at its own pace, there are people who need help now.”

Portland’s Metropolitan Human Rights Center named Laddie winner of this year’s Human Rights Award. In presenting the award, Linn called Laddie a “one-man truth squad,” a person with “as much dignity as anyone I know.”

Laddie helps the Portland Police Bureau’s crisis intervention team train officers to deal with the disabled. His role, coordinator Ed Riddell says, is to challenge officers: “What are you gonna do when you run into someone like me?”

Someone who walks and talks differently and overreacts. Someone loud and opinionated. Someone angry, afraid and mistrustful of police. Laddie still hasn’t gotten over being arrested years ago for drunk and disorderly conduct when police mistook his slurred speech for intoxication.

Some officers are put off by Laddie’s manner. Some say they can’t understand him.

Which is the point.

Laddie is on a county advisory committee aimed at improving access to care. He’s in a support group mainly for former Fairview residents. He’s on the board of directors for a private nonprofit program that links developmentally disabled people with state and county services. He’s a C-Span groupie, a regular Tri-Met rider and an e-mail addict who co-founded two Web sites.

And he attends more meetings than the committee members themselves.

Laddie Read, advocate.

Laddie Read, advocate.

He can be a tough audience. If a speaker drones on, Laddie yawns loudly and fans himself flamboyantly. Sometimes he laughs at inappropriate moments. “Bull crap!” he’ll mutter.

“Laddie is very passionate, and he sometimes gets frustrated,” says Jason Renaud, former head of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Multnomah County, who has seen Laddie in action at scores of public meetings. “It’s the passion you or I would have if we were at the mercy of the public-health system and within a couple of fingers of going down the drain.”

Renaud calls Laddie the county’s most consistent voice over the past three years for saying, “The system is broke — now get off your butts and fix it.”

At first, when Laddie started showing up at public meetings, officials tried to ignore him. But Laddie’s hard to ignore. And a funny thing happened when — initially out of political correctness — leaders such as Linn started paying attention.

Laddie started to make sense.

“Laddie is my reality check,” says Mike Henderson, his former caseworker.

Before each session of the mental health coordinating council, members and visitors introduce themselves. They reel off their titles — bureaucratic, academic, lofty, lengthy. Laddie’s is simple:

“Laddie Read,” he says proudly, left thumb up. “Advocate!”

More than 28 years after his discharge from Fairview, Laddie asks to return for a day. He wants to go back because he has begun to doubt his own memory — and also needs to see firsthand that the place is shut down. It closed in 2000.

The man who has agreed to show him around is Jon Cooper, Fairview’s last superintendent.

“Hi, Laddie,” Cooper introduces himself in the parking lot. “I closed Fairview.”

Laddie falls silent and holds out his left hand to shake Cooper’s right.

“Ank woo,” he says, giving Cooper the thumbs-up.

Wearing a new T-shirt emblazoned “Our enemies have failed. America is strong,” Laddie settles into his wheelchair. They begin to tour the 275-acre campus, its abandoned buildings and broad lawns shaded by stately trees.

“Oh, God,” Laddie moans, pressing his left fist to his forehead. He chatterboxes, as the memories flood back.

“Know why? Now, gonna tell my friends. No bull.”

He wheels past the original Hospital for the Feeble-Minded, the nursery school, the laundry and the rows of dormitory “cottages,” many named after U.S. secretaries of state.

“Never forget! Appreciate.” Laddie tells Cooper. “Tell all my friends. Shut down!”

He starts to curse. The funny thing about Laddie’s speech, caregiver Willman says, is that no one has trouble understanding when he swears.

“Why you work here?” he asks Cooper. “Nice guy. Kind. Why?”

Cooper explains that Fairview became a better place in the years after Laddie left, and that many people needed care.

“Not my time,” Laddie says. Angry recollections spill out, laced with unprintable words.

“Hit me,” he says. “Not eat food — hit me.” He was spanked many times as a grown man. Once, he says, somebody rubbed salt in his eyes.

Willman asks him to calm down, and he apologizes. “Sorry. Over-passionate. Shock me.”

Laddie asks Cooper to unlock an old building that served as hospital, dorm and offices. He wrenches himself out of his wheelchair, totters through the trash-strewn doorway and struggles up the stairs in the semi-dark. Mouse droppings litter the steps.

“Beds in here!” He points to an empty room with chicken wire in the windows. “Like prison.”

Down a dark hallway is a large closet that Laddie says once was a locked time-out room. “Know why I stubborn?” he asks. “Here.”

He’s had enough. He works his way back down the unlit stairs, then rests and collects himself near the drug-free workplace sign.

“My heart,” he says, tapping his chest. “Know why? Feel like in jail.”

Laddie tiptoes out to his wheelchair. “Bye, bye, ghost town,” he says. “Not come back, no more!

“Not talking hat,” he adds bizarrely. It’s another of his idioms — three words to stand for “Now my friends won’t think I’m talking through my hat when I tell them about my experience at Fairview.”

On the way to the car, Laddie points to an older dorm, its yellow paint peeling, and starts to cackle. Willman translates the serious joke he’s concocting.

What if, Laddie says in his verbal shorthand, they turned Fairview into an old folks home — for parents who send their children away and anyone who mistakes “disabled” for “stupid”?

“One night!” he says. “Serious! Know why? See how feels!

“Walk my shoes.”