On Their Own

Excerpted from The State Journal Register in Springfield Illinois October 10, 1999

By Dave Bakke

For three decades, two disabled friends have helped each other beat all the odds

Thirty years ago they [Diana & Kathy] found each other and formed what Diana calls “our team”. They left the traditional world of the disabled behind and moved into an apartment. They were on their own for the first time.

Now they live in their own house in Springfield. They have a cleaning woman and a visiting nurse who comes every three weeks. When the nurse and cleaning woman have finished their work, they leave Kathy and Diana alone again.

“We’ve often talked about the dynamic of two people with disabilities- one with a physical disability and one with a cognitive disability- getting together because it would be a perfect relationship,” says Pete Roberts, director of the Springfield Center for Independent Living. “The reality is that it doesn’t happen often, because you can’t legislate friendship. I’ve spent 25 years looking at this issue. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a relationship quite like this.”

In her wheelchair, Kathy presents an angled, twisted figure. Her index finger goes three different directions. Her spinal cord has bypassed her brain and sends a message from her spine directly to her muscles. It’s a one-word message: contract. Because of her CP, KathyÕs brain cannot override that command as it normally would. As a result, her muscles are in a constantly rigid state. A few muscle relaxants are among her 15 morning pills. They help somewhat, but didn’t stop her shoulders from cramping most of the summer.

Kathy is partial to C-Span. Diana likes Judge Judy. (“I love it when she says, ‘Oh, boloney!’”) Diana’s favorite movie is “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Kathy spends hour after hour on the World Wide Web.

As a girl in Belvidere, Diana was abused and shunned by her parents. Because of the abuse, the state took Diana and the other children in the family from their parents. When she was 8, Diana went to nursing home in Freeport. At 12 years old, she was sent to the Dixon Developmental Center.

Diana took care of four people in wheelchairs. She carried one of them up and down 20 steps every day. “I used to look out the window and wonder why I was there,” Diana says. “I was too high-functioning for Dixon.” After seven years, the administration at Dixon apparently agreed. She was given two choices; she could go to a group home in East Chicago or to a foster home in Ottawa where she could work in a sheltered workshop. She chose Ottawa.

Kathy was an only child who grew up loved and cared for in her Springfield home on Leland Avenue. She attended high school in Chicago, graduating from there with a high school degree. Her parents, Josephine and Gene, wanted her to stay with them in Springfield. But Kathy wanted to spread her wings. A friend told her of a job at a sheltered workshop in Ottawa. Despite her parents’ objections, she took the job.

Kathy and Diana met at the workshop in 1970. They lived with the same foster family in Ottawa until that family split up. Kathy and Diana left Ottawa for jobs at a training center for the disabled in Kankakee.

They thought nothing of getting on an airplane and just going- to the Middle East, Europe, South America, Mexico or Canada.

In 1990, Kathy developed a cyst on her spinal cord. Before that, she had limited use of her arms. She had surgery at a Chicago hospital. It was the beginning of a downward spiral. She says she has never known what it was like to have full use of her body. And so, she adds, she has never missed it. But she did have limited use of her arms and legs (she could stand up but not walk) until the surgery. After that, her arms and legs were useless. She fell into a deep depression. Some of the post-surgery medication caused a bad reaction, and she became very ill.

“They didn’t tell me, but she almost died,” Diana says. “After the surgery, Kathy didn’t know where she was. She almost lost her mind.”

“Though Kathy’s physical condition improved, she was still profoundly depressed. For the first time in her life, she wanted to die and be freed from the prison of her own body. At her lowest point, she tried to throw herself down the escalator at the White Oaks Mall.”

Kathy found two reasons to go on living: her mother and Diana.