Two weeks before high school graduation, Patricia Kepler lost her vision. Dreams of becoming a photographer were set aside, but Kepler has not let blindness slow her down.
Fueled by passion and compassion, she built a career advocating for people with disabilities. Kepler is an accessibility specialist at Portland Community College and is active on TriMet’s Committee on Accessible Transportation and Metro’s Committee on Racial Equity. She previously served on the Oregon Disabilities Commission.
Outside of her advocacy work, Kepler enjoys being outdoors. “I love to be on the water or on a trail or at the beach, and I’m on a dragon boat racing team,” she said.
Q: What keeps you motivated in your advocacy work?
A: Every small victory motivates me. I’ve had some setbacks. There are times when I felt like I just wanted to lock my doors and stay inside. But when I see changes happen it’s pretty amazing.
One time I arrived for my daughter’s school field trip to Multnomah Falls and the bus driver said I couldn’t be on the bus with my guide dog. I was so angry. I had this moment thinking I could stay on the bus and call the media. But I didn’t want to wreck my daughter’s field trip so I got off the bus trying not to cry.
Those are the things that hurt, when the rejections first come at me. With family support, I found the courage to get back out there. After that trip, I spent several months talking with a risk manager about what they did wrong, and eventually they changed the policy.
Q: Can you tell me about dragon boat racing?
A: My team is Blind Ambition. We formed in 2002 and were the first team of blind paddlers in Oregon and in the United States. It’s so cool because it’s a sport where you don’t need an accommodation. You’re equal out there on the water. It’s more about team building and community involvement.
We’ve competed in regattas in Arizona, California, Washington and Canada. The furthest we traveled was to Washington, D.C. It was so cool to race on the Potomac River. With all the history there, it was the ultimate statement of independence.
Q: How has this experience impacted other areas of your life?
Dragon boat racing is key to where I am today. My children were in school, and I was looking for something to do other than stay home and bake cookies. Job interviews were not going well. I faced many rejections.
One company said, “We would hire you, but we have stairs and just don’t want that liability.” I was feeling lonely in the world, and I was depressed.
A counselor from Oregon Commission for the Blind told me that they were thinking about creating a dragon boat team and needed to find paddlers. I needed a win. That’s how it started.
Almost instantly when you get involved with a community like that you begin networking. I landed a job with Independent Living Resources, interviewing people and writing their stories. Eventually I returned to college and got a degree in organizational leadership. It all came from the passions that started with dragon boat racing.
Q: What are some of the barriers to accessible outdoor recreation?
Everyone has different levels of need. I would say signage or indicators of trails, like for surface changes. Figuring out how to get to the bathrooms, play areas or the benches. How would we know where those are?
Tactile maps are a nice low-tech way for all people to figure out ahead to time where they are and where they’re going.
Q: What is something anyone can do to make public spaces feel more inclusive?
A: Take the time to be friendly and just say hello. People tend to be afraid to communicate with a person that’s different. They get tongue-tied and standoffish rather than treat them like a person.
If you have a community event, make sure you consider all aspects as far as accessibility, and if you have an organizational team make sure you get disability represented on that team.
I would like to see an inclusive thing where all the kids are together, recognizing and valuing each other. It’s important to bring the children together in their formative years because they will see differently. The things they see as kids will influence their decisions as adults.