EVANSTON — Next week Dustin Matthews will lead the Disability:IN Uinta County awards parade as grand marshal, a fitting recognition for someone who has become an integral part of the local community, serving on multiple boards and spearheading projects to help children and those with disabilities and to keep local traditions alive. When he was a 2-year-old child, doctors told his parents, Doug and Sandra, he was likely brain dead.
An Evanston native, Dustin was stricken with a spinal stroke and spinal meningitis at 2 years of age. He spent eight weeks in Primary Children’s Medical Center, where doctors gave his parents the grim prognosis that he was brain dead and would likely never wake up from a coma. His condition was so dire that when the decision was made to let him leave the hospital, he was flown home by LifeFlight.
Dustin defied those odds and has continued to defy such expectations throughout his life.
“What the doctors said made my mom mad,” said Dustin. “She started fighting for me then and has never stopped.”
That fight included ensuring Dustin was able to attend public school from elementary school on, graduating from Evanston High School after attending 100% mainstreamed classes at EHS. That wasn’t always easy. At the time, local schools lacked some of the features that made it possible for Dustin to attend school.
“I’ve always felt pretty supported here,” he said. “Sometimes people just didn’t know what to do.”
Although he lived within the boundaries of the Evanston Middle School attendance area, that school building wasn’t then equipped for his wheelchair and other needs. When he went on to attend EHS, Dustin said there were multiple little battles to fight to get the school better equipped for those with disabilities. At the time of construction, he said, many buildings simply weren’t built with disabilities in mind. In fact, he said he was instrumental in getting a ramp constructed at the front entrance to the high school.
“I went to a dance my freshman year,” said Dustin. “I was able to get in through another door but then they locked the gates (closing the academic hallways). The fire alarm went off and the gates were locked and I couldn’t get down the steps from the front door. Some guys from the varsity football team picked up my wheelchair and carried me down.”
Sandra’s habit of fighting for her son continued as he enrolled in college, earning an associate’s degree from Western Wyoming Community College, his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming and his master’s degree in computer information systems from Bellevue University out of Omaha, Nebraska. Sandra accompanied him to class and took notes for her son so he could complete his coursework through outreach and distance education programs. In recent years, Dustin has continued taking classes, working on his doctoral degree.
In addition to his involvement with numerous community projects, Dustin has also taught classes at Uinta BOCES No. 1.
Disability:IN Executive Director Wanda Rogers said the true testament to how remarkable Dustin is could be the fact that he’s not remarkable at all in terms of how he views his role and his active involvement as a community member. Rogers shared a story regarding a training she attended on people with disabilities.
During the training, participants were given a list of different disabilities and asked to rank them from the least to most debilitating. While other groups ranked paralysis such as Dustin’s as the worst, the group from Uinta County ranked it completely opposite. When the puzzled instructor and other group members asked about the ranking, Rogers said their ranking had been entirely because of Dustin and what he’s accomplished.
“Just look at what he’s done for inclusion and people with disabilities in our community,” said Rogers. “He just set out to be a community member but has really become an example.”
Though there have been struggles along the way, Dustin says he has never really seen himself as disabled. “It goes back to all the people and family surrounding me ever since I was little. Then the kids and my friends around me — the overwhelming majority of people around me — didn’t see me as any different. Now I just want to be a good community member and give back.”
Part of that giving back has come through his involvement with the Evanston Cowboy Days committee, which he’s chaired for the past few years. Dustin said when he first returned home after his eight-week hospitalization all those years ago — just before Christmas — the Evanston Cowboy Days committee had provided support to his family while they were dealing with almost unimaginable stress. “I just want to be able to give back to the group that helped us so much,” he said.
In addition to Cowboy Days, Dustin has served on the board of the Uinta County Business Leadership Network (the prior name of Disability:IN), has been active in projects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was instrumental in the Evanston Splash Pad project. He’s also an avid hunter and has helped other local folks with disabilities fulfill their hunting dreams as well.
“I’ve always had a love for it,” Dustin said of hunting. He said his maternal grandfather loved to hunt and Dustin would go along. At the age of 14 he was able to acquire a gun mount for his wheelchair. He’s able to use a joystick for control and a straw that allows him to pull the trigger with his mouth. The set-up allows him to hunt 100% independently other than the loading process and he has a permit that enables him to hunt from his vehicle.
In his usual dedicated fashion, Dustin wasn’t content with just hunting himself or just helping a couple of individuals with disabilities. He also worked with Wyoming legislators to draft and pass legislation allowing people with significant disabilities to begin hunting five days prior to the official start of the hunting season.
Dustin loves to hunt anything and everything, although his favorite so far was a moose he took five years ago that he said actually made the record books. His hunting “bucket list” includes a buffalo.
When asked about what people can do to help promote inclusivity, he said, “The thing that always comes to my mind is that there’s a lot more awareness than there used to be and people don’t mean to do the little things they do that sometimes get overlooked. Engineers and designers sometimes do things that make me scratch my head.”
For example, he said some of the curbs in downtown Evanston were constructed in such a way that they smack the small wheels on the back of his wheelchair. “Little things like that make a huge difference,” he said. He encouraged people designing buildings or opening businesses to simply ask those with disabilities what can be done to better serve them, citing Evanston’s Aspen Cinemas as a business that had called him to ask for advice on creating the wheelchair spaces in the theaters.
He said he’s also working with Uinta County to bring more improvements to the Uinta County Fairgrounds to accommodate the many disabled individuals in the county. “What we have now meets the legal requirements but I think the community needs more accessible areas there,” he said.
Rogers said Dustin’s tireless work to improve the community is why he was the obvious choice to serve as grand marshal of this year’s parade. “Youth and other people with disabilities are able to look to him as an example,” she said, “and kudos to Doug and Sandra for all they’ve done to fight for him and instill that fight in him. I don’t think anyone in Evanston really thinks of Dustin as someone with a disability. That’s the goal – that we think of those with disabilities as community members first.”