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Mind Over Body

Richard Devylder, who heads an Anaheim center for the disabled, hasn't let his lack of limbs stop him from leading a fulfilling life.

October 12, 2000|MATTHEW EBNET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Devylder sits behind his desk, a neat pile of chewed pens on its surface. There is an air of movement about him, as if he will stand up at any moment and pace the room to think. But he won't, because he has no legs. If he had hands, he says, he'd shake with you.

Devylder (pronounced DEE-velder) is the new director of the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled in Anaheim. And there's a lot to get done--jobs to fill, new buildings to consider--so he paces in his mind. Squinting a bit, he picks up a pen with his mouth, jotting a note on a yellow pad in elegant, regular cursive. "Can't forget that," he says, pen in the right corner of his mouth. "Cannot. I've got to write things down."

That's not really true. He just likes saying it. Most things, Devylder does in his head.

He has more phone numbers there than some Palm Pilots. "That's what you do when you don't have any arms or legs. You adjust, or you fade away angry and bitter about what you can't do," said Patricia Yeager, Devylder's former colleague and executive director of the Sacramento-based California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. "He's adjusted his way into the job he's always wanted."

The McIntosh Center is the largest agency of its kind in California, with 1,500 clients and a $2-million budget. Devylder has been there for three weeks, and already he's trying to find more focus for it, broaden its mission. Maybe move the center from its brown '70s-era corporate mall near Disneyland, where he's concerned that blind people will be hit by cars.

"I knew this when I was 7, growing up in Whittier: This is what I'm here to do," he says, using his right shoulder stub to move the control stick of his electric wheelchair so he can look out the window.

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He doesn't have many friends outside work, never has, the 31-year-old says bluntly. But for him that's beside the point: Richard Devylder, born from an embryo that never fully developed, finally has found a place in the world where he truly can "live to work" and live out an epiphany he had when he was 7, when he commanded his mother to throw away two prosthetic arms "that were supposed to make my life better."

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The McIntosh Center's mission has always been to train the disabled to live independently and to persuade public and private agencies to adapt their buildings to the needs of handicapped employees and customers. But after eight years under the previous director, who died earlier this year, something is changing now at the center, workers there said.

The rawness of Devylder's disability, colleagues say, could help the center become more inspiring for the area's disabled, who often arrive at the center dispirited and feeling helpless. They might find it harder to complain when Devylder flips a phone into the air, catches it between his cheek and shoulder and punches the number pad with a stiff lip.

"His lifeblood is to be independent. I've never met anybody like him," said David Sanfilippo, director of disabled student services at Cal State Long Beach, where Devylder studied and worked. "He knows the world shall know him by his fruits, and you cannot underestimate the effect he has on people."

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Devylder tends to sit close to people and lock eyes with them during conversation. His are dark and deep-set. His voice is gentle, his enunciation precise. And he uses the language of the able-bodied: "I'm going to stand up and say something now," or "Let's sit down to talk about this."

His lack of arms and legs can be intimidating to some people, he says. And if it works to his advantage, he says, he does nothing to put them at their ease.

That was clear at a recent meeting of about a dozen people from various agencies, at which Devylder was seeking a share of state tobacco-fund money to start offering services for disabled children.

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As visitors came in, their arms moved uncertainly, as if they wanted to shake hands but knew that was out. So they sat down quickly and shifted in their seats.

Devylder was mostly silent during the meeting. Occasionally, he would make a point defending his position that his center was the perfect place to help such children. Yet when the meeting was over, one woman said, "Boy, he's tough."

That doesn't bother Devylder.

"It works to my advantage, my disability. It helps people, but it puts them off guard too," he said. "It disarms them if they are hostile. . . . I use it any way I can. Heh, heh, heh." He grins.

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When Devylder was born, doctors "thought he would be a basket case," says his mother, Joan Devylder. "They didn't know what he would be . . . if he would be anything. They had no hope."

Doctors assumed his disabilities would translate into an absence of mental capacity. They thought he was headed for a life of misery. So did his biological parents, who long ago disappeared from his life.

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