Sharing her vision

Evelyn Tileston continues fight for rights of the disabled

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Evelyn Tileston has made a wide mark in advancing the rights and improving the lifestyles of Moffat County's disabled population. It's a mark she can't see, but it's one she feels and hears every time a disabled person gets the benefits they're entitled to, learns necessary skills, and even when they're able to get from their home to the grocery store.

"I love to go to other places where no one has ever had help with disability-related problems," she said. "I love giving them gifts. I like being able to give."

And she's given the disabled residents of Craig a lot.

From securing a disabled-accessible van to making housing vouchers available, once Tileston sees that the disabled population has a need, she goes after it.

Tileston herself is considered disabled. She was born with congenital retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that eventually leads -- as it did in Tileston's case -- to total blindness.

"One of the hardest things I have to live with is people who don't believe I have as serious of a vision problem as I have," she said.

Tileston was the oldest child to parents who were never told they were supposed to treat a visually impaired child differently. She grew up in a slum -- a two-room house with only cold water and a toilet that had to be shared with other tenants in the building.

Tileston was educated in a world that didn't understand the needs of the blind, but that was working toward adapting. She was one of the first to attend an "integrated" school, where she was taught alongside children who could see. She also was taught the same way, which meant she didn't learn skills that helped her cope with her blindness nor was she given special consideration because of it.

Despite that, she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class of 325 and went on to get degrees in sociology and psychology from the University of Chicago. She earned a graduate degree in social work at Ohio University.

Tileston found college similar to high school in that the people weren't able to deal with a disabled person.

"If people needed help, they were objectified," she said.

But it was when she was looking for employment that Tileston fully realized the stigma associated with being visually impaired.

"There are lots of ways I've been forced to go down paths I didn't want to go down or couldn't do what I wanted to," she said. "I learned to get the best of whatever situation I happen to be placed in."

Tileston went to work for the Cincinnati Association of the Blind, doing piece work and later as a social worker because, with her disability, that was the only job she could get.

"I resented being in that position because I hate stereotypes," she said.

Being the victim of discriminatory circumstances, she took the job.

But there were other things she wanted to do.

She wanted to be a reporter, work in advertising, in occupational therapy or run her father's business.

But in those days, Tileston said, there weren't the technological devices that exist now -- taking computers or type enhancers -- that, with her astute mind -- would have made those jobs doable.

"There wasn't an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) around to give me the right to ask for those things," she said.

Tileston came to Moffat County 39 years ago to marry her husband, Gordon.

She spent the first 15 years as a housewife.

"I didn't work, but I stacked hay and punched cows," she said.

During that time, she and Gordon helped found Horizons Specialized Services, a group home for adults with disabilities. To start the home, the Tilestons faced opposition from residents and then Mayor Saed Tayyara over the "decrease in property value" a group home would cause on the street it was to be located on.

Knowing from personal experience how important it is for the disabled to feel independent, Tileston and others fought until their goal was reached and Horizons Specialized Services was created.

It was also while she was out of work that she worked to create the group VizAbilities in 1995. Their first issue was helping people with enough vision to get around safely, which meant crossing busy highways. The need was made more prevalent after a man crossing the intersection of Victory Way and Finley Lane was almost hit by a car. The driver hit his white cane and drove off.

The group wrote a letter to the Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT) requesting audible traffic signals at the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Finley Lane and at the intersection of 6th Street and Yampa Avenue. Their request was met and at a cost of $30,000 each, the DOT installed the two signals and, on its own, also funded a signal at the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Yampa Avenue.

Tileston was already making strides for the disabled community in Northwest Colorado, but she was ready to return to the workforce.

Because of her disability, her opportunities were limited and, by default, she became a rehabilitation teacher.

"I was mad because I was again forced by circumstances to do something I didn't want to," Tileston said. "I didn't want to be the role model of a blind person leading the blind. It's very demeaning, but I did it."

Tileston learned how to teach those who are visually impaired the skills needed to enter the workforce and learned that she could also be helpful to those who could see but had other disabilities.

Ten years later, her position was cut because of lack of funding.

On the search for a job again, Tileston was approached by public health nurse Marilyn Bouldin and was asked to help apply for an establishment grant that would fund Tileston's employment with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association (VNA). With Bouldin's offer to help, but no knowledge on how to get a grant, Tileston took the challenge and two months later was awarded a $140,000 Vocationally Essential Independent Living Skills (VEILS) grant. The three-year grant paid for equipment, Tileston's salary, a driver and peer counselors.

"I love the reinforcement I get. Someone thinks what I do is important enough or valuable enough to subsidize it," she said.

Under the VEILS grant, Tileston had the opportunity to work with many disabled people, giving them life skills as well as job skills.

The grant expired in 2000.

"I could spend 40 hours a week serving visually impaired seniors in this part of the state, there's such a need," she said.

Tileston also served as the chair of the Colorado Statewide Independent Living Council.

Not only has Tileston spent her life teaching the disabled to function in a world geared toward the non-disabled, she has taught those without disabilities how to make their world more accessible and more understanding to the needs of the disabled.

Tileston has given lectures and presentations to local organizations that deal with the disabled. She has also given presentations to students on the life of the disabled.

"I like being in schools and giving programs," she said. "I like children, they ask the best questions."

Tileston's efforts will not go unnoticed by the next generation. She believes that the integration between the disabled and non-disabled populations will help a generation grow up able to accept and encourage people with disabilities.

After siting on the state Independent Living Center (ILC) board, Tileston became convinced that Craig needed an ILC. Her idea was met with enthusiasm and in 1997 Moffat County's Independent Life Center was incorporated and in 1998 it was certified. It is the only ILC in Colorado that was started without funds -- only with in-kind help from the Visiting Nurse Association.

"It's been a blessing," Tileston said. "I hope I can keep on being part of it because it's fun."

Last year, Tileston was at the forefront of efforts to bring nearly $170,000 into Moffat County. She was also instrumental in starting a housing voucher program to help the disabled get access to better housing.

"I just think that is such an important thing that people who are disabled and have a low income have a choice of where to live," she said.

Her most recent accomplishment is getting funds to have a consumer navigator stationed in the Colorado Workforce Center. This position will help the disabled get and keep jobs and gives the ILC a link to the Colorado Department of Labor that opens a new service area and a new funding source.

The 2000 census showed that 16 percent of Moffat County's population is disabled in some form. That's twice the amount in either Routt or Rio Blanco counties.

"It seems to me that I'm just beginning this work," Tileston said, "that there's just unlimited potential here."

Tileston doesn't take all the credit for her accomplishments.

"Had it not been for the steadfast and continued unswerving and unquestioned support of my husband, I would never have been able to do the things I've done," she said. "He's always just quietly around to help me out when other people are unable or unwilling to help."

Nonetheless, the drive has always come from Tileston.

"I have been all of my life a pioneer, whether I wanted to be or not," she said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

Letter written by Tileston after attending a seminar on a teaching method for the visually impaired.

"I believe ... that we should never give up in our effort to find an environment which will stimulate a child to develop, thereby learn. I couldn't help but remember how often I had wanted to do something or try something only to be stopped by sighted caregivers whose creativity was blocked by their lack of knowledge or their personal discomfort with blindness or by those who, in their love and concern, thought it would be too dangerous for me or that there would be no point in it because of my limited eye sight. I remembered resentment and hidden tears."

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