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Montanan advocates for people with unseen disabilities at international summit

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Posted at 1:26 PM, Dec 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-16 15:26:31-05

BILLINGS - A Montana man is hitting the world stage in Istanbul, Turkey, advocating for people with unseen disabilities.

Tommy Roberts of Billings does walk with a cane, but when he’s not walking, you’d never know he has a disability.

Like most of us, there’s more to him than what meets the eye. Never in his wildest dreams did this former miner from Montana ever believe he’d be on a world stage receiving an international award.

Roberts’ path to world wild fame began hundreds of feet underground in 2020 when a mining accident sent 7,500 volts of electricity through his body. He miraculously survived, but it forever changed his life.

“From 1997 until June 19, 2020, I was working full-time jobs. I felt like I was part of society, then after I got injured, I felt like I wasn’t part of society anymore. So now I’ve been helping people talking to them and making them feel like they are part of society when they have a disability,” says Roberts, a delegate for the International Summit for Disability Rights.

Roberts now suffers from global nerve damage from head to toe, making it painful and difficult to walk, maintain balance and lift objects, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at him.

“My wife and I were at a colleague’s house, and a former colleague walked in and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, you don’t look hurt,’ and before I could say anything, my wife said, ‘What is he supposed to look like? Shriveled up in a corner about to die?’ So just because your disability isn’t seen, doesn’t mean you don’t have one,” says Roberts.

Experiences like that motivated Roberts to begin volunteering with the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights. He mentors others with unseen disabilities, and that work has been noticed. He was awarded an excellence award at the first International Summit on Disability Rights, a summit that welcomed representatives from 60 countries.

Among those in attendance was the mayor of Istanbul, who has two prosthetic arms.

“I think he really took this summit to heart because of his own disability,” says Roberts.

Roberts’ message? Compassion. He says anyone can have it, no matter how big or small the act.

"When I was on my flight I had my carry-on luggage with me, and I needed help getting my luggage in the cargo bin in the overhead compartment. I asked the gentleman behind me if he could help me and he said no, you could do it. I think he thought I was just like a normal functioning human being, but I needed that extra little help. I had to struggle getting it up there. I could do it, but it left me in a lot of pain,” says Roberts.

Just like Roberts, your friend or neighbor may be battling challenges you never see.