August 21, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


The Optimist 

Craig was born in New Hampshire 39 years ago with cerebral palsy. Her twin sister, Linda, has it, too.

"I was sent away when I was 3," Craig says, to a special school for kids like her with disabilities. The two were placed in public schools together when they were 8. Craig had a harder time than her sister did in school and at home. People coddled her, she says. No one expected her to go far, much less move away, find a job and live on her own. But it's all she thought about.

"I decided I wanted to be independent so I knew I'd have to fly the coop," Craig says. "It was the only way."

While in high school, Craig began researching post-secon-dary vocational programs for people with disabilities in other states. And when she graduated in 1983, she shocked her family by announcing her plan to move to Virginia to attend a school in Fishersville. "I packed a trunk and caught a Greyhound bus all by myself," she says.

Craig met her husband at the vocational school. They married in 1985 and moved to Richmond. He had spina bifida and relied on a wheelchair, too. He could drive. He took care of Craig. In time she grew dependent on him — overly so, she says. This and other stresses put an unbearable strain on their marriage. They divorced after 15 years. Not long after their divorce, he was diagnosed with cancer. He died last year.

Meanwhile, Craig found a job that still delights her, working as a switchboard operator at Children's Hospital. "I wanted to work with children, that was my dream," she says. Her job lets her do this in an important, if not direct, way. She has been a full-time employee at the hospital for nearly eight years. And in this time, Craig has grown more confident in her abilities, she says. She has learned to harness new freedoms, too. Some have been costly.

Craig spent years of her youth on crutches, using her arms and shoulders to bear the weight of legs that can't move on their own. "I blew out my arms," Craig says. She had come to rely solely on a manual wheelchair to get around.

But eventually, the constant pushing of it made her arms weaken even more. Muscle deteriorated. Craig has had three surgeries in recent years to mend damage done to her upper arms and shoulders. She has had surgery on her hip and feet, too.

Now she must depend on an electric wheelchair. It cost her $8,000. (Some cost as much as $22,000.) Craig hooks the wheelchair's batteries up to a charger every night. The chair has two speeds and goes up to 7 mph. It's her vehicle, she says. "I call it my car."

"When I first started driving I was petrified, I was crashing into everything," she recalls, then laughs softly and tosses her head at the thought, a rocking movement she makes whenever she's amused.

In a strange way, Craig's dependence on the chair has helped widen the lens of her world, to see new things. "People ask me how I get from point A to point B," she says. "I tell them this will take me."

And Craig goes everywhere. She repeats this emphatically and often. Still, she has to depend on services like the Greater Richmond Transit Co.'s CARE Van — which costs her $135 a month — to transport her back and forth to work. She is quick to praise public transit like the Chesterfield Link line that began offering rides from the city to places such as Chesterfield Towne Center last year. She says she wishes more people, disabled or not, would use it.

But apart from her weekend excursions, "everywhere" for Craig means a few miles from home. Most trips take a half-hour or a little longer to reach places like the bank, post office, grocery store, Kmart — anywhere the sidewalks run. And some places where they don't.

Her resolve has almost gotten her killed. Craig has been run off the road twice by cars while edging the street belted in her wheelchair. Both incidents occurred on German School Road close to Craig's apartment. The road has only a short stretch of sidewalk. There are nearly a dozen residential complexes nearby. Pedestrian and wheelchair traffic is steady. German School Road connects Jahnke Road — with its shopping center — to Midlothian Turnpike. There is no shoulder along most of it and ditches are deep.

The last time Craig was run off the road she was headed toward Midlothian. "I flew out of my chair and into the gully," she says. Her wheelchair landed on top of her. A neighbor saw the accident and helped her. The car never slowed down or stopped, Craig says. She injured her hip and had to have surgery. After this, Craig mapped out a circuitous back-road way to get places and avoid German School Road as much as possible.

Craig doesn't dwell on her close calls. She simply implores: "We need more areas that are [wheelchair] accessible." She recognizes her limitations but won't let them stifle her. "I believe in independence, not stupidity," she says. She is extra careful to cross intersections only with the light and in unison with traffic.

Still, Craig's sense of adventure gets the best of her. Everywhere she goes she looks out for curb ramps and sidewalks. "There are no sidewalks to get to Wal Mart. If there were, I'd be traveling there," she says.

People have told Craig she has spunk. She prefers to call it determination.

"I don't want anybody to pity me or take care of me," she says. There are times when she gets discouraged, especially when she hears people complain about things like having to walk far to get to their parking spaces. "It makes me want to say to them, 'If you don't want to walk, I'll take your legs and you can have mine.'"

But most of Craig's time is spent being grateful for what she has, and how she's made it happen. "That's been my journey," she declares. "I wake up in the morning and tell myself, Yes, I can do anything and I don't have to depend on anyone else." S

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