Andre Wilson, 45, suffered a car accident in 2006 that left him in a coma and induced prolonged brain damage. The resident of Cache, a small town west of Lawton, has trouble concentrating and struggles with his eyesight, short-term memory and regulating emotions. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires states, counties and cities to accommodate people like Wilson, so they can engage effectively with publicly funded entities like courts, police and libraries. But in Oklahoma, Wilson said, that doesn’t always happen. Frustrated with Lawton’s lack of accommodation, the stay-at-home dad advocates for himself and others with disabilities.
In an Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Wilson described life before the accident, what changed for him after and how it set him up to become an advocate. (Portions have been edited for brevity and clarity)
I was born in Sumter, South Carolina. We lived with my grandmother because my mother was a teenage mom. My mom and my dad, they were never married. My mom eventually married my stepfather when I was around the age of five or so.
My mom was a military spouse. We went to Colorado, then we went to Germany. Then from Germany in the late ‘80s, when the Berlin Wall was knocked down, we ended up moving to Oklahoma.
I went to MacArthur High School in Lawton where I played basketball. I worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Tulsa for a little while after I left Southwestern University in Weatherford.
Once I got a job at Halliburton and started working a lot of hours, I moved back to Lawton. I bought my own property. I was working like 12 hours a day, just working, working, working at Halliburton, then on my house to change out floor tiles, replace bathroom fixtures and paint the walls. I’d get two hours of sleep and go back to work.
One day, a friend invited me to visit him in Oklahoma City. After work, I went home, worked on the house, didn’t get any sleep, then drove to Oklahoma City. I needed to go back to Lawton and try and get some sleep, so I could get ready for work the next day.
It was maybe 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., and it was raining that night. I remember driving down I-44 from Oklahoma City to Lawton. I went to sleep. And next thing you know, I felt like I was dreaming, like I was in a field, just floating.
From what I was told, I drove into the field and up a ramp, hit the railing of the bridge and went airborne. I didn’t even touch the overpass at the top and landed on the other side, in the field again, upside down.
The Highway Patrol found me the next morning. They cut me out of the car then flew me back to Oklahoma City to Presbyterian Hospital before transferring me to a hospital in South Carolina at my parents’ request. The doctors induced my coma. I had so many broken bones I could’ve died from the pain and shock.
It was painful trying to rehabilitate. I had to learn how to talk again. I had to learn how to walk again. I had to learn to do a lot of things over again because I couldn’t do them anymore. Before my accident, I was very nonchalant about things. I don’t know why I was like that, but nothing really ever bothered me. I didn’t take a lot of things as seriously as I should have. What I gained is being more present in the here and now.
Sometime in 2007 I got out of rehab. I left against the doctor’s orders because I was missing my son, who was 2 years old at the time of the accident and was still in Oklahoma. That’s all I kept thinking about. I was like, ‘whatever happens, I’m going to go back to being in his life.’ So, I went back to work at Halliburton. That’s when I started really experiencing the difference in my cognitive abilities.
I couldn’t stay awake. I was getting agitated. I was angry all the time. I would start sweating a lot, and my heart started beating really fast. I couldn’t explain it. After the accident, I wouldn’t let anything go. People started getting really tense around me. They eventually laid me off because I was going off on everybody.
I decided to go back to school. I went to Cameron University to start my career over. I studied psychology and physical education. My professors were very caring. For four years I got straight As. Cameron was really good about accommodating people with disabilities. They gave me more time to take my test and put me in a different room to reduce the noise.
The accommodations at Comanche County court and the City of Lawton were basically nonexistent. I was fighting for custody of my son, and going to court while dealing with the effects of a traumatic brain injury was super overwhelming. People, they didn’t understand. I would say, ‘I have a disability, I just need you to slow down,’ or ‘I just need you to explain to me what you mean.’ They would look at me like I was crazy. The disrespect.
For years, we tried to file police reports at the department related to my custody case. I would tell them I had a disability, but they didn’t seem to care. They weren’t including everything I was telling them in their reports. I eventually had to write the reports on my own and staple them to the official document for the police department.
It wasn’t until July 2019 that I spoke about it at a city council meeting for the first time. I started researching the Americans With Disabilities Act, and started advocating for myself. At first, I didn’t know all the ins and outs and what the law covered. What I did know to do was document every interaction I had with the police and the city. It was as I was reading and understanding the ADA that I started to know the different ways discrimination takes place. At the meeting, I was trying to educate the city of Lawton, to tell them it’s in their best interest to learn about unseen disabilities like traumatic brain injuries, like I have. That way they could help and provide services and programs for people.
Before the meeting, I reached out to the city’s ADA coordinator. I asked them for more time to speak because sometimes, if I’m trying to speak off the top of my head, it takes me a minute or two to gather my thoughts and formulate what I’m going to say. He said to make a request for accommodations. He didn’t foresee any problems. Well, when my wife and I went to the meeting at 6 p.m., we found out the time had been switched to 2 p.m., and we didn’t know that, so we missed it. We made plans to go to the next one. I was assuming they already knew that I wanted extra time. So before I got started, the mayor was like ‘you have three minutes to speak.’ I told him I had put in a request for more time. He said the rules allow for three minutes and for more time to be added there would have to be a vote on it, so he denied the request for accommodation. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m about to speak to the city about ADA accommodations, and they’re blatantly violating it right there while I’m about to speak.’
I started hearing all these stories and being told that people just don’t know what to do. There were people with similar stories as me, and they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to file a complaint with the city. I did so much research I knew exactly what they should do.
My youngest son’s godmother, her mother is in a motorized wheelchair. She needed to go to her doctor’s appointment. She lives less than a mile away from her doctor, but she couldn’t leave her house because the sidewalks were either non-existent or broken. And she would have to ride in the street, which she didn’t want to do as an older woman who could get hit by a car. She was nervous about filing a complaint. When she was finally ready, I went over there and took down all the information about the sidewalks and what she was trying to do and filed a complaint on her behalf.
Not too far from Cameron University, on the other side of this busy strip called Gore Boulevard, there are places with no sidewalk. I saw a guy, he was driving his motorized wheelchair in the street. I told my wife, ‘let’s stop really quickly,’ I walked toward him and said, ‘ I’m Andre Wilson. I am just trying to find out what is your experience riding a wheelchair in the city of Lawton. Are there any experiences of discrimination that you can tell me about?’ He said he is almost always about to get hit by cars, that he has to ride in the middle of the street. He had the same complaints as the other lady who also had a motorized wheelchair, so I used what he was saying to me and filed a complaint with the city.
It makes me feel empowered to give this knowledge to somebody else and fight for their rights for them, for them to have dignity. That’s all you have to do is treat people with dignity.
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.