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THE MONDAY PROFILE Nonprofit founder helps teens follow dreams

Monday, June 13, 2005


With the flick of his fingers, 26-year-old Scott Hatley swivels his motorized wheelchair to face the 30 teens he’s invited to his first “empowerment” training.

He asks the students — some also in motorized wheelchairs, others with no visible disability — to read a bumper sticker that’s taped to the dry erase board.

“Handicap,” says one teen.

Try again, Hatley says, as the teens do a double take.

“Handicrap,” another teen chimes in, correctly.

Hatley tells them Handicrap is a way of thinking that holds handicapped people back. Handicrap is why many kids with disabilities don’t dream about what they want to be when they grow up. And it is what feeds some dismal statistics about the lives of people with disabilities, he says.

According to a 2004 Census report, 13 percent of disabled adults ages 25 to 64 hold a four-year college degree. Close to 75 percent of disabled adults are unemployed.

The nonprofit organization Hatley founded, Incight, intends to change that by offering disabled youths scholarships, assigning them mentors, finding them internships and helping them land their dream jobs. Last year, Incight awarded its first four scholarships to college-bound students; this year, it plans to award 40.

Eventually, Hatley would like to create forums for disabled people to join sporting leagues, meet friends and date.

“Everyone has to have a reason to get out of bed,” Hatley says.

Hatley’s reason is simple but sweeping: Improve the lives of millions of disabled people worldwide.

Hatley was born a perfectly healthy-looking baby. By age 4, his awkward walk led doctors to diagnose him with the most common type of muscular dystrophy affecting boys: Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The disease is slowly wasting away every muscle in his body, including, ultimately, his heart and the muscles that control breathing.

While his classmates in West Linn grew bigger and stronger, he went from walking with a tiptoed gait to walking with braces to not walking at all. Over the years, he’s lost the ability to straighten his legs and arms, and his body is slowly freezing into the shape it most often takes, seated in his wheelchair. He can no longer snap his fingers or throw a basketball, a former favorite pastime. It is increasingly difficult to answer the phone or to type up a grant application.

But on the morning of empowerment training last week, Hatley doesn’t tell the crowd of disabled teens all that. He doesn’t tell them many people with his disease die when they’re teenagers, or that it’s rare for people with his disease to reach 30.

It is not Hatley’s style to dwell on the fact that medical science tells him he has few years left.

But it does motivate him.

“You can’t really avoid thinking about that — that it could happen one day,” Hatley says. “It’s like you better work faster and quicker and get this done.”

Nowhere has Hatley seen an organization that targets disabled teens for college scholarships and helps them follow their dreams. Most agencies geared toward the disabled focus on finding a cure for specific diseases or helping people cope, Hatley says. Or if they do help people find jobs, they aren’t careers but lower-level work.

Can-do attitude

Hatley’s mother, Susan, distinctly remembers the one period in which her son felt sorry for himself. The increasingly clumsy fourth-grader was dreading that he would soon need a wheelchair.

“He would say to me, ‘I wish I was dead,’ ” Susan Hatley recalls. “And I just ached and felt so badly. I didn’t know what to say. He said it a couple times, and finally he said it one day and I just kind of snapped. I turned to him and I said, ‘You know what? You’re not dead. And life is going to go on. And we’re not going to stay home just because you’re in a wheelchair. . . . We are going to find ways to have a happy life.’ ”

After that, his mother never heard him complain again.

Hatley remembers growing up in a family that didn’t give him an extra ounce of special treatment. He was assigned chores, such as feeding the dog. When his family vacationed in Sunriver, he scooted his motorized wheelchair alongside their bicycles on the resort’s paved paths.

His parents constantly shared stories about their days at Oregon State University: the classes they took, the dorms they lived in, the football games they went to. College for Hatley — just like for his younger able-bodied sister — was not ever a question of if, but where.

Today, Hatley’s parents help him wash his hair, get dressed and prepare the slice of toast and glass of milk he downs each weekday morning. A TriMet lift or cab driver shows up at 7:15 a.m. to shuttle him to Incight’s office in downtown Portland.

Friends have made sure that Hatley experiences his 20s. One strapped Hatley to his waist to go four-wheeling on all-terrain vehicles near La Pine. Another took him downhill skiing on skis he could sit on — unfortunately, the last time Hatley went, he broke his arm.

Surmounting shyness

That’s how Hatley has lived — unafraid to go places or do things that push his comfort zone. A self-described shy person who occasionally still blushes in front of crowds, Hatley tapped a speech coach to help him hone his presentations for Incight.

“Three or four years ago, speaking in front of people would have been tremendously uncomfortable,” Hatley says.

At a gathering of special-needs educators, Hatley tells how much he loved his grandmother’s cookies growing up. His sister did, too. And so she began to stash them above the refrigerator, out of his reach.

But instead of scolding his sister, his parents recognized it as good old-fashioned sibling rivalry. They bought him a long metal “gripper” that allowed him to retrieve the cookies. They didn’t tell his sister — she eventually figured it out as the treats kept disappearing.

The hall breaks into laughter.

After his speech, the crowd lobs questions at him. When can you come to our school to speak? How far can you travel? And oh, yes, where can we get some of those Handicrap stickers?

“He never stops”

Vail Horton, who coined and trademarked “Handicrap,” met Hatley when they were students at the University of Portland. Horton offered Hatley his first job out of college at his company, Keen Mobility, which is best known for its shock-absorbent crutches.

Horton describes Hatley as one of the two people who have inspired him the most.

“Sometimes at night when I’m thinking about Scott, I kind of chuckle,” Horton said. “I think Scott is God’s little joke to this world.”

Horton, who was born without legs and uses a skateboard to get around, said Hatley has a die-hard work ethic and never complains about his lot in life.

“He is severely handicapped,” Horton said. “He was supposed to be dead at 19. But he never talks about it. He never stops.”

Convincing fundraiser

Some say starry-eyed folks who start their own nonprofits are a dime a dozen. A much smaller bunch actually succeeds in the long run.

Although Hatley formed Incight in late 2002, it didn’t become an official nonprofit with tax-exempt status until 2004. Lately, Incight has been picking up speed.

In 2003, it raised $5,000. In 2004, it raised $40,000. And not yet six months into this year, it’s raised about $60,000.

Among last summer’s four scholarship recipients were a Centennial High graduate who is interested in poetry and can’t walk or speak, and a Roosevelt High graduate who’s living with the nerve-damaging effects of polio and is studying to be a neurosurgeon.

For this summer, Hatley had set the goal of awarding 26 scholarships and attracting at least 100 applicants from at least five states.

By the time the deadline arrived two weeks ago, 390 applications had poured in from 44 states and five foreign countries. Because of that, Hatley and his board of directors decided to increase the number of awards to 40.

And so Hatley has been busy writing grants and making his nonprofit’s pitch.

Jerry Carleton, Hatley’s freshman year roommate and an Incight board member, said Hatley doesn’t hesitate to approach and ask for private meetings with some of the biggest leaders in the region’s business community, including top brass at the United Way or Nike.

“He’s extremely focused, and he knows his stuff,” Carleton said. “He is so compelling. There are no cracks. There are no ways they can wiggle out of helping him.”

Last November, Hatley hired his first of three part-time employees.

In January, he paid his first month’s rent to Keen Mobility, which had been donating some of its office space.

But one thing Incight hasn’t done is grow enough for Hatley to draw a salary — no more than his $34 a month TriMet pass. Hatley says that’s not important. He wants Incight to prosper, and every penny is precious.

“It definitely feels like this is what I need to do with my life,” said Hatley, explaining that his trust in God leads him to work but not worry. “It’s trust that I’ll be here as long as I need to be — as long as I need to live my life.”

Aimee Green: 503-294-5969;

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