Sitting before a judge, Jerry Lopez nervously fumbles with a hand-held camcorder. He presses buttons but is unable to get the tape to play.
Recorded on the tape is a verbal altercation during which his neighbor, Robert Gafford, allegedly insulted and threatened Lopez prompting Lopez to seek a protection order through the court.
A self-described cowboy, Gafford admits during testimony he that he is blunt when speaking to others, but says his remarks are only meant to be teasing.
What do you know about brain injuries? Lopez asks Gafford in the courtroom.
Only what youve told me, he responds.
More than 15 years ago, Lopezs life was forever changed when he sustained a head injury after falling off a building on a construction site in San Francisco.
He went to a hospital but was overwhelmed by the number of people waiting to see a doctor.
So I went home, and I think I slept about two or three days straight, he said. It was at the point that the general contractor I was doing the work for was banging on the door. ... Somehow or another, I pushed myself to go back and finish the job. I dont know how long it took me. Everything is like a blank. You went through it, but you dont know how you went through it.
Since then, Lopez said he has lost his glass company and spent time homeless on the streets. He went to a crisis center where he was misdiagnosed with mental disorders and heavily medicated.
While I was going through these changes, I wasnt sure what was going on, Lopez said. It was like a whole new world in a way. So I went to a crisis center. The crisis center was just packed all the time. I would wait for hours and hours for my turn. Thats when I started learning that I couldnt be around a lot of people. I was having these panic attacks.
After moving to Cortez to care for his ailing mother, Lopez has improved his condition through diet, exercise and supplements. Although he has trouble with loud noises and crowds, he is functional and articulate.
However, after several run-ins with locals, he has all but given up trying to interact with others. He spends much of his time in his home with only his cat Midnite to keep him company watching anxiously through the vertical blinds as people pass on the street.
You kind of work within yourself to work with the outside world because its kind of crazy out there, he said. I found out the best thing to do around here in Cortez, is to just leave people alone. Which is not what I want to do. Because I think I could help other people that maybe have the same situations going on that Im going through.
Lopez said there is an assumption among many that individuals who sustained a traumatic brain injury are mentally ill.
They have a projection, he said. They assume things that are not true, or they just make up things just to make themselves feel better because they are probably going through something themselves.
Rose Romero, an advocate for the disabled with the Southwest Center for Independence, said Lopezs situation is not unique.
Brain injury seems to be a big one coming into the fold the last couple of years, she said. Theres a lot of brain-injured people out there in the community. Theres a lot of misunderstandings.
Disabled people often have trouble communicating their situation to members of the public as well as service providers such as health care professionals and law enforcement, Romero said.
Romero said her organization provides advocacy, information and peer support with the primary goal of achieving independent living for individuals with disabilities.
People with disabilities often respond differently to questions, and this leads to assumptions that they are not there, Romero said.
They have a permanent physiological disability, or mental disability or developmental disability, she said. Thats preventing them from communicating properly. Disability does not mean that your brain is gone. It just means that person is slower in responding to whatever you asked. And you need to give that person some time or maybe ask some questions to get that person feeling OK.
As a result of misunderstandings, people with disabilities often get turned away for services, Romero said.
I think the sensitivity toward the disability, or understanding the disability, is not there, she said. I think people get a little hardened because maybe theyve done that job a long time.
Eric Bergman suffers several physical ailments as well as anxiety. He said he once went to the emergency room because he was having trouble breathing. Unable to communicate his needs, Bergman was turned away.
I actually got a lecture about not coming to the emergency room, he said. They said, Why dont you go to your primary care physician. My wind pipe was closing off.
With the help of Romero, Bergman said he was able to get treatment at another hospital.
The disabled are stomped down a lot because they dont speak, Romero said. And after youve been stepped on a lot, youre not going to want to get up. You give up, and you say its not worth it.
Although everyone is different, people with disabilities can appear slow to respond, confused or agitated, Romero said. Taking the time to listen and ask questions is key to understanding what a person with a disability is trying to communicate, she said.
If service providers cannot help the individual, it is important to refer them to someone who can, Romero said.
People get empowerment from feeling listened to, she said. And then they, themselves, will learn how to navigate the resources.
Romero helped Lopez seek a legal protection order against his neighbor after several verbal confrontations stemming from Gafford using his driveway without permission.
Lopez said when he approached police about disagreements with his neighbor, he was advised to record any future incidents to be used as evidence.
Romero said she is working with Cortez Police Department administration on training officers to work better with disabled individuals.
Lopez recorded an altercation with Gafford on his camcorder but was unable to get it to play in court at a hearing June 10.
He told the court he sought the protection order because he feared for his life.
Gafford said he was surprised by the request for a protection order because the two men had helped each other out in the past. He said he would leave Lopez alone and the man had nothing to fear from him.
Romero also testified, saying because of his condition, Lopez requires a quiet atmosphere. A verbal assault affects him as much as a physical assault would.
Magistrate Judge Leigh Meigs ruled against a permanent protection order, saying although Gafford may be confrontational, it did not appear he was aware of his transgressions and he does not appear to intend to harm Lopez.
Mr. Gafford is not always easy to get along with, Meigs said. That does not mean that he is capable of a crime.
However, Meigs recognized Lopez for being open about his disability and praised him for his efforts in participating in the legal process.
You did everything right, she said. I think that youve gotten Mr. Gaffords attention.
Although a number of individuals and organizations help people with disabilities, Romero said there is still room for improvement in the community.
She has one message for people who decline to assist people with disabilities.
Youre one car accident away from being my consumer, she said.
Lopez encourages people like him to eat healthy, exercise, take supplements and stay positive. He said he wants to help the community by possibly being a mediator for the police department.
Most individuals with disabilities just want to become more functional and a part of the community, Lopez said.
Theres people who have disabilities that function pretty well, Lopez said. Try to work with them. We try to do our best.
Individuals with disabilities seeking services are encouraged to contact Romero at 759-2347.
Reach Reid Wright at [email protected]