Man Says Paralyzed Wife Ejected From Fair

An Idaho man says his paralyzed wife was asked to leave a MADD fair booth.

Oct. 2, 2008 — -- Rose Harn can't speak. She can't walk. And the only way she can tell her husband she loves him is by sticking her tongue out at him.

But she was certainly capable of understanding an employee at the Western Idaho Fair who asked the couple to leave the Mothers Against Drunk Driving booth where they were volunteering in August because she was "too graphic" to look at, her husband, Mike Harn, told

Harn has required the use of a wheelchair since 1986, when a 16-year-old drunken driver ran a stop sign and smashed into the car she and her daughter were riding in. Harn suffered severe brain damage and was in a coma for more than a year.

The Harns have been regular fixtures at schools, victim impact panels and, for about the last 15 years, the MADD booth at the Western Idaho Fair in Boise.

Mike Harn said they had been at the fair Aug. 19 for less than a half hour when a woman from Spectra Productions, which is contracted to oversee the fair, approached his wife and her caretaker.

"She said, 'I want you to take that woman and I want you to leave the premises,'" Mike Harn said, "and she pointed right at her."

Mike Harn said he asked to speak to the woman's boss, but he never came to the booth. He called the local MADD chapter the next day to discuss the issue and he said he was told both he and his wife had been removed from its volunteer list.

Dispute Over What Was Said at Fair

The Harns, who lived in nearby Nampa, have since filed complaints with several agencies, among them the Idaho State Human Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union and Spectra Productions.

"Rose was crying because she heard her say it," Mike Harn said, referring to the comments by the Spectra Productions employee.

Brad Miller, a lawyer whose Boise-based firm Hawley Troxell represents Spectra, said it was "not appropriate for us to comment on a pending matter."

"I think it's certainly safe to say there was a misunderstanding," he said.

Rich Wright, director of Ada County Public Information, said in a statement to that the county fully supports the Human Rights Commission's investigation and noted that the person who the Harns said approached them was not a county employee.

The Western Idaho Fair is a department of Ada County.

Wright said that Spectra told the county that no employee working for its company had asked Harn to leave the fair, but that the Harns told the county otherwise.

"Ada County anxiously awaits the outcome of the HRC [Human Rights Commission's] review and we have said publicly, and will continue to say publicly, that Mike and Rose Harn are always welcome at any Ada County facility," Wright said in the statement.

James Fellakos, an ACLU disability rights fellow, said that, requiring the use of a wheelchair himself, he understands firsthand the comments and stares that come with a disability.

Fellakos said he was disgusted by MADD's alleged removal of Harn as a volunteer because the group exists to prevent accidents like the one she was in.

The entire incident in Idaho, he said, "sounds like the actions of misinformed, judgmental, small-minded people."

A Life Forever Damaged

Harn, 57, was in the passenger seat next to her daughter on the night of April 4, 1986, as the two returned home after dropping the Harns' sons off for a night of roller-skating.

"Two other teenagers was out partying, they ran a stop sign at 100 mph," Mike Harn said, and hit Harn's car on the passenger side.

Mike Harn, 64, said the impact pushed his wife so hard "it pulled her neck so far it pulled her brain stem loose."

His wife's head smashed into their daughter's neck, breaking it. Upon recoil, Harn was thrown back into the door's post, nearing tearing off her ear.

The brain swelling, Mike Harn said, began almost immediately. She spent two months on life support, in a medically induced coma. Two tubes were inserted into Harn's head that drained about 1 ½ gallons of brain fluid every eight hours for about a month. When doctors took her off the medication and life support, he said, they expected her to die.

But she didn't. She spent 14 months in a coma at home while her family talked to her and kept a radio on in the background.

Their daughter, who was two months pregnant at the time, was unconscious for 12 days. A special body cast had to be made for her to accommodate her growing body. The baby was born four months premature and weighed 1 pound, three ounces.

Both mom and baby are now fine, though the Harns' daughter still suffers from residual nerve problems in her hands and feet.

Before the accident, Harn was a vibrant mother who was licensed to work in refrigeration, electrical systems and welding, which she did for a railroad. She spoke three languages and boxed.

"She was super active," Mike Harn said. "She had a photographic memory and now she can't talk at all."

She can answer yes or no questions by blinking for "yes" and shaking her head for "no."

"And she sticks her tongue out to tell you that she loves you," Mike Harn said.

The couple spend a lot of time on the road in a tour bus retrofit for Harn's needs. They've been all over North America, including to New York, Mexico and Canada. At home, they spend time in the backyard where the family plants a tree for Harn every year.

"She understands everything that is going on," he said. "She just can't talk."

'Are You Happy?'

After years of inactivity, Harn's muscles have atrophied despite exercise. Her hands are curled up around her chin, balled into fists. She is blind in the right eye and the left is damaged. She can't swallow and gets fed every four hours through a feeding tube.

"I ask her, 'Are you happy?'" Mike Harn said, "and she blinks her eyes yes."

Mike Harn said he's also asked his wife whether she's mad at the girls who hit their car that night more than two decades ago. She says no.

But she likes to visit schools, from elementary through college, to show young people what can happen if they drink and drive. The students, Mike Harn said, are always receptive to her.

"It does make an impact. They ask her yes and no questions," he said. "But I have never to this day seen any kids scared of her."

Likewise, Loleeta Wine, Harn's caretaker since 1992, said she has gotten stares and questions while out in public, but never anything like what they experienced at the Western Idaho Fair.

The woman from Spectra, Wine said, "was on a mission. She had to do it --- she was told to by her boss."

Leslie Goddard, director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, said it does not comment on specific cases, but confirmed the Harns had filed a complaint.

The Idaho Human Rights Act, she said, dictates that people cannot be removed from a public place because of their disability.

When a formal complaint is lodged, the commission sends a copy to the entity said to have done the discriminating, which then has 30 days to file an answer.

"We often try to mediate cases before trying to determine whether discrimination really occurred," Goddard said.

If that is unsuccessful, the commission launches an investigation and, if it finds discrimination occurred, then acts on behalf of the victim. In rare cases, complaints rise to the level where court action is taken.

MADD's Response

A call to the Idaho MADD chapter seeking comment wasn't immediately returned. The chapter released a statement in a link on its Web site.

"The incident, we are told, centered on complaints made to the Idaho State Fair officials on Tuesday, Aug. 19 about the disabled victim/survivor who was present at the MADD information booth," the statement read. "Those complaints were allegedly made by patrons and vendors to fair officials on Tuesday and one official in turn asked the volunteers to leave the fairgrounds, out of concern for his wife, as well as for the safety of those at the fair."

"Since the volunteer always attends MADD events with his wife, we informed him not to attend on the Wednesday evening until we had an opportunity to connect with the organizers at the Idaho Fair," the statement continued.

"We also shared that we would visit with him and his family later to best determine future sites and venues and to discuss the best way to set this family up for success in expressing their pain and grief associated with the devastating crime of drunk driving."

Mike Harn quickly pointed out that his wife was not on a gurney, but a type of wheelchair that can be adjusted so his wife is sitting up, reclining or lying flat. She was reclining on the day of the fair, he said.

Misty Moyse, a national spokeswoman for the Dallas-based MADD, said the group is committed to working with survivors and victims in a variety of ways, including victim impact panels.

However, she said, "I think that news reports are sensationalizing this a little bit, for sure."