He fell 40 feet to the ground but landed in a position to effect change.
Ian Engle uses a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him from standing up for the rights of a community.
Ian Engle has never dealt well with apathy or complacency. He’s always challenged adversity and worked hard to better himself. This mentality earned him a position on the Michigan State wrestling team and fueled his success in school, where he received a history degree with plans for a career in academia.
Ian now serves as the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI), a departure from his planned career path. He often tells people he fell into this line of work — an intentional play on words: When he was 21, Ian fell 40 feet from the top of a tree.
“There wasn’t room for being a victim.”
When Ian awoke in the hospital, he learned the severity of his injuries: a crushed pelvis and spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. His first thoughts weren’t about himself; instead, he thought about his mother and his younger siblings. He knew his injuries resulted from his actions but would hurt his loved ones the most, and he needed to tell them he was OK. He left no room for self-pity or depression. When his mother arrived, it was a beautiful moment. She simply was happy her son was alive and saw Ian as himself, not as someone different. It was a moment that changed his life.
Ian’s hard work ethic transferred seamlessly into his recovery: He completed his inpatient rehab within six months of the accident. But then Ian received news that was almost as devastating as his paralysis: He had no insurance, so he was being discharged to a nursing home. As he left, he looked down Michigan Avenue and saw people marching with signs. There were hundreds of people in wheelchairs. He learned the march was part of a nationwide movement to advocate for disability rights and adaptive action, and he quickly joined the crowd — an experience that launched him into a career of disability advocacy and activism.
Today, Ian and the NWCCI team work to overcome the stigma that people with disabilities are helpless. It comes with challenges, like determining how best to address an act intended to help but that instead becomes oppressive.
“We need to break down the ‘us’ and ‘them,’’” Ian says. “If people knew better, they’d do better. They’re not trying to be rude or oppressive by helping me…they just don’t know any better.”
Ian and his team subscribe to a “learn by failing” mentality and are working to shift how human services are delivered. They focus on providing a participant-driven, peer-support system. It’s a strength-based approach that fosters independence and connects people to resources they can use to empower themselves — resources like Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program).
“Medicaid is a tool, a resource. It allows me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
Ian participates in the Health First Colorado Buy-In Program for Working Adults with Disabilities. The program allows him to earn an income, pay a monthly premium, and receive Health First Colorado benefits. It’s quality insurance for which he wouldn’t otherwise be eligible.
Even with his coverage, Ian admits he doesn’t enjoy going to the doctor’s office. He’s had his fair share of tests, needles, and medications over the past 30 years. But Health First Colorado helps make access to care more palatable for Ian and other individuals with disabilities who may have concerns or lack trust in the medical system. It helps address some of the most basic access barriers, like a lack of translation services or resources to support individuals with autism.
But as with any system, Ian acknowledges there’s room for improvement. “Every challenge is an opportunity,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us to come out and have these important conversations around ‘What does good access to health care mean for everybody?’ and ‘How do we set up systems that accommodate people in a user-friendly way?’” To Ian, these opportunities help to close the gap between people with disabilities and those without, to grow, educate, and address ignorance.
Ian is thankful to have met a broad community of people from various backgrounds who have come together for this common purpose. He describes it as a gravitational pull, where puzzle pieces combine to create a beautiful picture. And Ian wouldn’t give up who he is now; he enjoys his life. Thanks to advances in adaptive equipment, he stays active by kayaking and mountain bike handcycling. His job allows him to meet with and bolster the confidence of children with disabilities. And he can spend nearly every minute with his faithful service dogs, Montezuma and Mitakuye.
But Ian admits he didn’t always have this positive outlook on life, noting there’s an irony to his optimism: His accident changed his perspective. “In some ways, I was kind of built for this. Going through adversity has galvanized me and made me a better person — and that’s not necessarily a given.”