Idaho fair accused of evicting paralyzed woman

By: AP
By: AP

NAMPA, Idaho (AP) -- Rose Harn peers out at the world with one working eye, her arms curled tightly against her shriveled body. A rag under her chin catches her drool.

In the two decades since Harn was left brain-damaged and paralyzed by a 16-year-old driver, her husband has taken her to numerous Mothers Against Drunk Driving events in Idaho as an object lesson in the consequences of drinking and driving.

But that was before MADD removed Harn as a volunteer at its booth at a state fair last month amid complaints that the sight of her was too disturbing.

The Harns have filed a discrimination complaint with the Idaho Human Rights Commission against MADD and the company that operated the fair. MADD is taking a closer look at its practice of bringing accident victims to public events. And the incident has stirred up townspeople in this community of 50,000, situated in a sugar beet- and onion-growing region 20 miles from Boise.

"People with all kinds of disabilities, disfigurements and challenges have the right to be at public events, no matter how queasy someone may be," the Idaho Press-Tribune in Nampa railed in an editorial.

Exactly what happened at the fair is in dispute, and the state agency is investigating. MADD, for its part, said it feared trouble at the fair and acted out of concern for Harn's safety.

But Mike Harn said MADD should have let his wife be seen.

"This is reality. This is what happens when someone who has been drinking and driving hits someone," he said. "This is what's left. This is shattered lives."

In 1986, his wife was left blind in one eye, paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak after a teenager who had been drinking ran a stop sign and plowed into her car. The crash nearly severed her brain stem, putting her in a coma for about 18 months.

The 58-year-old mother of three lives on a wheeled bed. Because she can no longer swallow, she relies on a feeding tube inserted in her abdomen. According to her husband, she is aware of most of what is going on around her, blinking once for yes, moving her head slowly from side to side for no.

Since the accident, Mike Harn, 64, has arranged for his wife to appear at numerous MADD events, including about a dozen state and county fairs by his count.

Rose Harn has also been wheeled in many times at court-ordered classes for people convicted of drunken driving, where her husband tells of how the other driver got just 90 days in jail for reckless driving.

At MADD's request, the Harns went to the Western Idaho Fair on Aug. 19 to volunteer. Less than an hour later, a fair employee asked them to leave because of objections that Rose Harn was "too graphic" and that her husband had put her on display, Mike Harn said. He refused to go.

The next day, Miren Aburusa, executive director of MADD Idaho, dropped Harn as a volunteer at the fair.

"The comments that people were making about Rose, I think were horrible. If that was the main issue, I would have said, `Too bad. We support our volunteers,'" Aburusa said. But "I was worried that the sheriff was going to show up. I didn't want to send Rose out there. I did not want to send them into a riot."

Aburusa also e-mailed county officials an apology "for the problems and inconvenience our booth has caused you."

Harn has since cut ties with MADD.

Aburusa said she has heard conflicting accounts of whether a fair employee actually told Rose Harn to leave. Rich Wright, a spokesman for Ada County, which oversees the fair, said: "It would be surprising to us if this indeed did happen." An attorney for Spectra Productions, the company that operated the fair, refused to comment.

But fairgoer Richard Cirelli said he was standing nearby when a female fair employee approached the Harns. "I remember her saying something about getting lots of phone calls because Rose was offensive," Cirelli said. "That was the word she used. It just hit me wrong."

In a statement on the Idaho chapter's Web site, MADD's national office said: "We are taking a closer look at how presentations by volunteers that include victim/survivors, are carried out in the best interest of the family and the public."

If the sight of Harn makes people uncomfortable, that is the point, said Dicksie Luke of Court Referral Services, a business that arranges appearances by her at court-ordered traffic-safety courses for offenders.

"They need to see Rose to understand," Luke said.

On the Net:
Idaho Human Rights Commission: http://humanrights.idaho.gov
Idaho chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving: http://www.madd.org/id

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