Oct. 21, 2004 Michelle Griggs got out of bed Thursday morning, got dressed, said goodbye to her husband and drove to work in Havensight.
She pulled into the parking lot, parked her car, reached in the back seat, pulled out her folding wheelchair, opened the car door and placed the wheelchair in front of it. She quickly jumped onto the chair and wheeled in to work, where she is staff accountant at Benham Mittie, a public accounting firm.
Griggs is one of about 16,000 disabled persons in the territory. She and her husband, a software engineer, moved here last year when his company transferred him to St. Thomas.
Griggs was in an automobile accident when she was 6-months-old where she received a spinal injury causing paraplegia. She has no use of her legs.
"I'm opinionated," Griggs cautions, sitting down to lunch in a nearby restaurant. "This is not a place where I would want to live a long time." She softens her remark with what turns out to be a characteristic smile.
"We moved here last year because of my husband's job," Griggs says. On the one hand, she finds the island beautiful. "The view from our apartment of the water is simply awesome," she says. "And the people are so friendly and willing to help but it's the government."
Griggs says the island lags way behind the states in being user-friendly for people bound to wheelchairs.
The blue-eyed 34-year-old talks about what she sees as the government's skewed priorities when it comes to making life easier for wheelchair users. "It's my biggest peeve," she says. She chooses her words carefully describing encounters she typically has in some government offices.
"Last year," she says, "as an office manger, I had to go to the Department of Labor to file quarterly taxes. The office I needed to see is on the second floor. There is a rickety contraption there it sorts of looks like a phone booth. I never would get in that; I wouldn't feel safe."
Griggs says she has spoken to a Labor Department officer, but he told her there wasn't anything he could do about replacing the contraption. "He told me the government doesn't have any money," she says.
Griggs says the employees at the department do go upstairs to get the necessary paperwork for her, but "they treat me as if it's a huge inconvenience."
She also encountered problems at the Lt. Governor's Office when she needed to get the proper documents to register her car. Those offices are on the second floor. "If I hadn't had a friend with me, I'd have been in trouble," she says.
"This is a difficult place to live for disabled persons," Griggs says, "'and I don't see anything changing."
She says it is vastly different on the U.S. mainland. "I cannot remember the last time I was in a government office that wasn't wheelchair accessible. It's the exception; not the rule."
Possibly her most frustrating ongoing experience, she says, is other drivers parking in the disabled spots. "And there's not enough of them downtown," she said.
Griggs says she and her husband like to have dinner at the Green House or Hard Rock Café on the waterfront.
"We have to go about a block away to park," she says. "And then everyone parks on the sidewalks, so it's really hard wheeling back to the restaurant in the street."
What takes the cake, she says, is the parking lot at the main branch of Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. "They have two places near the bank's front door downstairs," she says, "but almost always there's a police car or a Finance department car parked there."
"I've talked to the guard," she says, "but he said, 'What can I do? It's the police.'"
So, she often has to go to the upstairs parking, and wheel through the lot and down the corridor of the second floor to the elevators on the other side.
Griggs is very independent. She likes to do the things anybody else would do on her own.
"My mother taught me independence very early," she says. "She decided that I would go to public school like other kids the authorities wanted to put me in special schools. She would take me to the school bus, make certain I got on OK," Griggs says. "After checking at the school that I got off the bus safely, she said I was on my own. She was satisfied I could get along just fine."
The only time she attended a special school came in the sixth grade, after, unbelievably, another automobile accident where her arm was broken. "My grandmother and my cousin were killed in that accident," she says, withholding any emotion. "I had to attend the special school until my arm healed."
In Grigg's first accident, her 2-year-old sister was killed and her parents were severely injured.
"My parents were in the military," she says, "so that helped cover our medical expenses." Griggs grew up in a lot of different places early with the military life, but they finally settled in Texas.
Griggs is comfortable talking about her life. She tosses back her long brownish blond hair, talks easily and smiles a lot. On how she views the world and her place in it, she pauses, "I feel blessed," she says, "It's in the way I meet people. It's on another level, it's very heartfelt."
Though she graduated with an English degree from Northwestern State College of Louisiana, Griggs wound up working with figures, and she's not exactly sure how that happened. "Lucky," I guess," she says. "I wanted to get a law degree, but I got started working with the police and the courts, and the accounting just sort of followed."
Though she laments the conditions for the disabled here, it isn't an empty complaint. She is involved in the community. Griggs is a board member of the V.I. Assistive Technology Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that provides a program of low-interest loans to people with disabilities and older Virgin Islanders so they can buy the assistive devices they need.
"These are items like hand controls and lowered floors for cars and vans, ramps, grab bars and wider doorways for homes," Griggs explains. "They also include hearing and vision aids, scooters and computers with special software or hardware."
The program provides loans anywhere from $300 to $15,000. "It's not giving it away," Griggs says, "but it's the next best thing."
To get an application for the program, call 776-9200 or 693-1089, or e-mail at email@example.com.
Griggs recalls a recent experience where she had no choice but to depend on the kindness of strangers. "I was driving in the rain," she says, "and my car overheated. I was in an area where there was no signal for my cell phone, so I just had to sit and wait. Finally, a man came along, got a jug of water out of my car and filled the radiator. People here really are nice."
Leaving the restaurant in Havensight, Griggs wheels herself out to the parking lot. Has she ever thought about having a motorized wheelchair? "Oh, no," she looks up sort of surprised, "this is the only exercise I get."
She wheels herself over to about an eight-inch curb, and pauses. "You see, there's no ramp here," she says pointing to the other side of the parking lot. "It's way over there." She had parked in a regular slot, because the disabled spots were taken.
Quickly, she raises her chair up and sort of hops off the curb. "I'm lucky I can do that," she says, "a lot of people can't." She then wheels over to her vehicle, which is especially equipped with hand controls. She is in the car almost before you know it, folds up her wheelchair, puts it in the backseat, closes the door, ope
ns the window and waves goodbye.
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