Rolling into the good life

Craig residents with disabilities say life here is good

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A car accident several years ago crushed Ricky Northrop under a tractor-trailer and left him walking with a cane.

Now 34, Northrop said he used to enjoy skiing and riding horses and motorcycles.

"I can't do any of that anymore," he said.

He needs help just getting around town, and said living in Craig is a blessing. He thinks the services offered here are more accommodating to people with disabilities than those in Steamboat Springs, where he used to live.

"It's better than Steamboat," he said. "When I came here, it was like day and night. They help you more here."

Other people with disabilities agree. Craig may not be the most handicapped-accessible town, with limited access to sidewalks and buildings, but the people here care, wheelchair user Stan Sholes said.

He suffers from multiple sclerosis and is a frequent user of the Independent Life Center's free van service.

"If it wasn't for the van, I wouldn't be able to come to town," Sholes said.

He lives north of town and has driven his wheelchair down Victory Way before in his need to run errands.

Evelyn Tileston, ILC executive director, said the service started three years because of people such as Sholes.

"There was no wheelchair-accessible transportation in Craig for anyone besides senior citizens," she said. "If you weren't in that age bracket, you weren't eligible for services."

She recalls seeing one young mother running her wheelchair along the street with her baby in her lap.

"We had people in wheelchairs going up and down the highways in the wintertime," Tileston said, "because they couldn't get to the doctor or the grocery."

The van is available four days a week to people with disabilities registered with ILC. Tileston said more than 100 people use the free van service. For special circumstances, she said, the service is available to those with out-of-town appointments.

"I think that in our little town, we can be more responsive," Tileston said.

Judy Fahie is appreciative. After three brain surgeries that left her with partial blindness and trouble with thought processing, she no longer has a driver's license.

So the ILC van gets her to medical appointments as well as grocery shopping and to Kmart.

"(Without the van), I would just be lost," Fahie said. "It just makes it a lot easier and makes you a lot happier. You don't sit at home and get depressed because you can't get anywhere."

She first had her disability when she was living in Denver, but came to Craig 11 years ago to make her life easier.

"Denver was just way too crowded and way too much going on for me," she said. "It was way too hard."

Tileston agreed that Craig's services are surprising for a town of its size.

"I think we have better services for our disabled folks in Craig than they do in some big cities," she said. "We really offer a whole variety of services."

Horizons Specialized Services is another agency working to provide those services. The organization serves people with developmental disabilities by providing group homes, host homes and day services.

"They're pretty comprehensive," said Michael Toothaker, adult community coordinator for Horizons. "It's 24-hour care."

Horizons also provides supported living services, including vocational counseling, transportation to appointments and other specific needs for clients who live on their own or with their families.

"As a team at Horizons and Craig as a community, we really do take care of our own," Toothaker said. "There's a more homey environment, so people are involved in community events as well as their own personal needs."

However, funding is an issue for organizations. Currently, there are 20 people in the community waiting for Horizons' services, Toothaker said. Because of financial issues, their needs cannot be met at this time.

But, overall, he thinks people with disabilities are treated well here, and they live well-rounded lives.

"I think they have the best quality of life they can have with limited funding and resources," he said.

But even with transportation provided free of charge, some residents with disabilities have trouble doing the things they need and want to do.

Stoles has a truck with hand controls, so he can get to town whenever he wants. But often, he can go only through a drive through if he wants to get something to eat.

He said many restaurants and other businesses don't cater to the needs of customers with disabilities. Stoles understands, because he does not remember thinking about the needs of wheelchair users until he became one.

"You don't really notice that stuff until you're in a chair," he said. "You don't notice a lot of stuff until you're handicapped."

Northrop had a more extreme opinion of the way people act toward him in general.

"They really need to do more for crippled people," Northrop said. "Crippled people are treated like crap."

He thinks local businesses should be available to everyone, and Stoles agrees. He thinks businesses would see an increase in customers if the owners would build ramps and provide adequate room.

Although that's an issue local organizations may not be able to tackle, building skills among their clients is.

In addition to vocational training, the ILC offers computer instruction, along with adaptive software, to its clients.

A peer-mentor program pairs people with disabilities so they can talk about issues they're having.

"There's nothing like personal experience to be used to encourage somebody else," Tileston said.

The ILC also counsels clients on applications for government income programs.

Fahie said the group, along with the Community Budget Center, helped her with a deposit on her apartment, and even offered her household items if she needed them.

"The Budget Center does an awful lot," she said. "They also help with food vouchers and stuff like that."

Tileston said the ILC offers seminars about renters' rights and gives out vouchers for those who need help with housing costs, based on income and regardless of disability. People also can receive help for household expenses, such as plumbing or energy bills.

"If there is anything else that a person with a disability needed, we'd do our best to develop a program for it," Tileston said.

Love INC has offered Fahie assistance, as well. And the compassion is not lost on her.

"I think that's great," she said. "When people are down and out with circumstances they couldn't prevent ... they're just very pleasant. Nobody looks down on you. They're just glad to help you."

The idea behind ILC and Horizons is to help people help themselves, Tileston said. Independence is her main goal for her clients.

"We're all about people taking control of their lives," Tileston said. "We really want to work ourselves out of jobs. It's not going to happen, but we keep trying."

In the meantime, Toothaker said he's all about making life as fun and meaningful for his clients as possible.

"They have everything available to them as anyone else does," he said. "They're mainstream into the community. I think they have a good quality of life."

For more information about these and other services, call the ILC at 826-0833 or Horizons at 824-7804.

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