Getting up and ready for work on a daily basis may be easier for some than others.
For Greg Callen and Jim Cronk, the task is much more involved.
Due to spinal cord injuries, Callen is categorized as a paraplegic and Cronk a quadriplegic. Both men rely on wheelchairs to get around. But neither man has allowed a freak accident to prevent him from being a positive contributor to society.
Callen is the director of admissions and marketing at Morningstar Residential Care Center in Oswego and founder and executive director of Move Along Inc. He also sits on the boards at ARISE in Oswego as well as the Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University.
In 2005, a misstep led Callen down his current path of disability advocacy.
“I was at the Travers, a horse race in Albany, and I was drinking on an empty stomach and not feeling well. We were out frequenting parties and I decided to take a shower to see if it would make me feel better. When I did that, it caused a blackout because a surge of intoxicated blood rushed to my brain. I do remember little things, like when I got out of the shower and got dressed. Then I went to find my friends, who were downstairs preparing the coolers for the race the next morning. It was around midnight.”
“There were two doors; one went downstairs and the other went out to a balcony. The balcony did not have a railing or a light, and I walked off that balcony. I landed on my feet, but it caused a burst fracture of two vertebrae in my back: T12 and L1. When they blew up a piece of one pushed against my spinal cord. That categorizes me as a T12 paraplegic.”
With Callen’s type of injury there is opportunity for recovery, he said. However, the technology has not yet been developed. He said the cure will most likely be an injection which will break down and rebuild the nerve bundles.
“I am [interested]. But I’m a different breed. I’m more interested in living everyday life. I’m not waiting for that. When it happens I’ll be prepared. But until it does there’s a lot that still needs to be done,” Callen said.
After about 18 months of recovery and depression following his accident, Callen made the decision to reintegrate. His positive attitude and outlook on life keep him motivated to help others who suffer from physical disabilities. With his work at Morningstar, ARISE, the Disability Cultural Center and the founding of Move Along Inc., Callen relates to and assists others in similar situations.
In 2009, he became the legal founder of Move Along Inc., an organization that creates athletic opportunities for people with physical limitations. Starting the company fulfilled Callen’s dream of being an entrepreneur, and allowed him to find joy in helping others.
With the introduction of a recent government mandate that procures parallel sporting programs in schools for individuals with limitations, Callen said Move Along Inc. will have the opportunity to aid the transition, he said.
“I’m hoping to position myself as a consultant to help out with implementing this type of programming. I think Move Along has the knowledge to help with this growth,” said Callen.
He said individuals who are successful in their careers and enjoy their jobs do not think of them as work. Callen focuses on what he can do to help the people he serves, which also helps him grow with his injury. It is “nourishing,” he said.
As Move Along is currently 100 percent volunteer, Callen supports himself on his income from Morningstar. He lives alone and has technology that allows him to drive his own truck. Callen said he is quite self-sufficient, and does not use any emergency support systems such as Lifeline Medical Alert.
His parents live close enough to help him out of trouble, and his neighbors are good friends, he said. They serve as his support network if he is ever in a jam. Callen admits he has had falls where he had to call for help, but usually he is able to get back into his chair and continue his daily routine.
Living with a disability has become just that for Callen: a routine.
“More often than not, recovery is an everyday thing. Everyone faces challenges. My challenges are different, but I get up everyday and face them just as you might get up and face challenges each day too. You have to identify how to address and approach those and come up with a solution. That’s just how I approach my disability. It’s just a routine of my everyday life now,” said Callen.
He works through the frustrations of everyday life and the challenges of his disability with a positive attitude. Callen doesn’t see himself as limited and doesn’t allow himself to think about the negative, only about how to overcome it.
“I just continue to pursue my goals that I had prior to my injury or after my injury to be successful in life. None of that has really changed,” Callen said. “I don’t feel like anyone else’s limitations are any greater or less. It’s just setting a goal, finding the resources to accomplish it and doing it.”
In 1984, Cronk was involved in a car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel after working too many long hours. He was ejected from the vehicle and subsequently run over by it, causing multiple injuries, including a broken neck.
“I spent almost seven months in Upstate Medical Center. I was in a very serious condition after my crash. I was so badly beat up, that to get back to where I could function took two and a half years. I didn’t start driving until three years later,” said Cronk. “It was a whole new world, a completely new world. Everything that you take for granted, I really couldn’t do. I had to build my strength up. I couldn’t even brush my hair or feed myself soup. My arms were not strong enough.”
Cronk now functions with an electric wheelchair and drives with adaptive technology called Zero Effort Steering. His van is equipped with a lift and full hand controls, which reduce steering to his level of strength. He said learning how to use the technology and adapting to a different method of mobility took quite a bit of time to get used to.
Nearly 30 years after Cronk’s accident, his injuries have taught him to be creative and think outside the box. He said there is always a different way to get things done, and he has a determination to find it.
“Obviously I’m not going to join the soccer team or play baseball, but I have a stubbornness, a drive to figure out how to do things. I knew I wanted to drive, so I taught myself and figured that out. I worked hard to get my strength level up so I could do that,” said Cronk.
Though driven, Cronk admits his disability has caused him some limitations. He is unable to do some of the things he used to love.
“I was pushing myself too hard to try and make full time. My day was starting at 4 a.m., and trying to find assistance that early in the morning was causing too much stress,” said Cronk.
He is now employed part-time at ARISE as an advocate. For 20 hours per week, Cronk assists other people with disabilities with anything from maneuvering through the Social Services system to finding housing or a vehicle. If a person is having issues with Social Security, Cronk will look over his or her information and help to resolve the situation.
He also helps with vehicle modifications, which he said he has experience in, as he is on his third van.
“Anything that comes up that a person with a disability is having a problem with, we try to help. I never know what is at the other end of that phone call. Once the phone rings I have no idea what is next,” Cronk said.
ARISE is Cronk’s secondary source of income. He relies on Social Security Disability as his main source since his limitations only allow him to work part time. He said ARISE is fantastic because it understands and works with him to help him be successful.
At work, Cronk operates a modified laptop with a screen that sits on an angle and a keyboard he is able to place in his lap. He said he was unable to operate the laptops because he could not position it properly in his lap, so ARISE was willing to make the necessary modifications.
Cronk said he was was lucky to find a position at ARISE. After his injury he decided to go back to school. Once his degree was completed, he had a difficult time finding a job. At the time, the stock markets were crashing and jobs were few and far between.
“I called ARISE looking for assistance and the manager of the advocacy department said she had a job opening. At the time, I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an advocate. Then about 20 minutes after I got off the phone I thought, ‘You dummy! You’ve been looking for how long and you just said no?’ So I called her right back and told her I was interested,” Cronk said.
Working at ARISE has given Cronk independence, and has helped him to move on in life. He said there are two choices: one is to deal with and get through it, and the other is not to. He made the decision to reintegrate after his recovery and adapt to his new life, and is now helping others to do the same.