Confined for Now

Without repairs to his wheelchair, a West Philly man is forced into a hermetic existence.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Mar. 31, 2009

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This is the way Lars rolls: no bullshit all the way. Sitting in his overheated apartment in his broken wheelchair, his eager chatter punctuated by the slapping of the vertical plastic blinds behind him, Lars holds forth about Revolutionary War history and the kind of work that’s offered to people with disabilities.

“Let’s say I’m in a factory, and I’m putting tobacco in the cans and I’m also putting, in another set of cans, lawn seed. But somebody by accident runs the tobacco cans through the lawn seed setup. Now you got a can that says American Spirit Tobacco on it but it’s full of lawn seed. Do you throw the product away? No. You can get the ‘gimps’ to do it.

"United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, Goodwill will bid for the contract. And then they take the entire shipment of 1,000 or 2,000 cans into a warehouse, sit the retard or the gimp down, they’ll put two trash cans in front of him. You dump seeds in one drum, then empty cans in the other. And you repeat this for hours on end for $14 a week. Forever.”

Then he talks about the joys of shaving with a German Merkur razor, about the lack of continuity in a movie he rented, about rape and sexual politics. He shows me a tender and sad short story he had someone write out longhand for him. I have to read it. Yes, now.

But getting back to the work problem …

“I would like to go to work. Here’s the problem: I’m dyslexic. I read at about third-grade level, probably a little bit higher. I had a dog who was smarter than I was, but that’s a different issue. A friend of mine used to deliver lunches. Why can’t I deliver lunches down in Center City? Most of the deliveries to high rises are on credit card. Thank you, here’s the receipt, whatever. You don’t have to make change.

The service company that used to fix Lars’ chair—which might only require new wheels—will no longer do so because he’s not employed. Lars’ only option for mobility without a job is to get a scooter from Medicare. But he’s afraid of them.

“If I go to deliver pizzas I’m not delivering them on a scooter. I could tip over riding down the sidewalk. It’s low to the ground and its center of gravity—it’s like you’re sitting on a pole. If you make the wrong turn, you can fall off—I’ve seen it happen. Imagine if I hit the wrong bump.”

Some would say Lars should take what he can get. Those people are not disabled, spastic and subject to utter catastrophe should they fall.

“Let me put it to you this way,” Lars says. “If you were a policeman and they said, ‘Here’s a gun—you just gotta take it home and file the firing pin and make sure it works.’  You going to take it?”

When Lars’ chair worked, he zipped up and down sidewalks, down the middle of streets and navigated the kind of terrain that would make a mountain biker blush. He got the chair brand-new from OVR, and it was repaired as long as he was employed. When he wanted to switch jobs, they told him they’d no longer fix it, and he fell into this gray area where nothing happens—no work, no school, no stimulation.

“I moved to Philadelphia after following somebody who told me they’d help me get educated. ’Cause that’s really what I want is an education,” Lars tells me, through cigarette smoke. Which reminds him of the most educating thing he’s read lately—or had read to him, anyway, by his computer text-to-voice software program. It’s about turning alcohol into gas ...

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1. Dave said... on Mar 31, 2009 at 05:12PM

“Excellent article. It's so refreshing to see a well written piiece about pwople with disabilities that doesn't classify us as "heroes." I too have cerebral palsy ann can attest to the racket that is wheelchair repair. Seems as though specialized compainies have monopolies on wheelchair repairs/sales in local areas. So, in a jam, Lars and the rest of us are screwed.

If I might make a suggestion to Lars, local colleges (at least thise with offices for Students With Disabilities) might have some ideas as far as resources for repair are concerned, especailly if students who use wheelchairs live on campus. Also, Veterans Affiars Centers might be able to point you in the right direction.

Again, well done article. Good luck Lars!”

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2. Any update? said... on Jun 12, 2009 at 01:18PM

“any update on lars' struggle? has he gotten a chair that works back?”


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