On a recent morning, Darlene Mortell left her East Lawrence home and traveled along sidewalks, side streets and bike lanes to get to the SRS office which was one mile away at 1901 Delaware St.
She used her heavy-duty, custom-fit electronic wheelchair to get there, and her personal care attendant Sarah Anderson walked alongside her.
Mortell dropped off an inch-thick stack of papers that contained information about her medical history she received from her doctor. They were required for Vocational Rehabilitation services, which she hopes will help her find a job.
“It’s something to do,” she said. “And the extra money would be nice.” The widow and mother of two grown sons lives on $699 a month.
She also receives food and medical assistance through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and has worked with the same case manager since moving to Lawrence in 1992.
She visits the local office several times a month, if not more, because of required testing for vocational rehabilitation and paperwork for the services.
Mortell has no idea what she’s going to do when the Lawrence SRS office closes. She’s terrified. She can’t take her wheelchair to Kansas City or Topeka.
A call to her SRS case manager was returned by Angela DeRocha, director of communications for SRS. She said SRS employees couldn’t talk about individual cases because of policies.
During a two-hour interview inside Mortell’s home, Natalie Donovan, her case manager through Communityworks Inc., said, “It’s a heavy duty chair, but not heavy duty enough for you to jump on the highway and go to Topeka.”
Communityworks is an agency based in Overland Park that helps people with disabilities remain in their home and as independent as possible.
It’s also difficult for Mortell to use a telephone or computer because of her medical conditions.
Mortell has had muscular dystrophy since age 17. She has asthma, diabetes, thyroid problems, deterioration of the spine and food allergies. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. She was battered as a child.
She’s overweight because of her lack of mobility, the thyroid problem and as a result of medications. She said she watches her fats and eats healthy. She tracked her diet for her doctor who found out she wasn’t consuming enough calories.
“I just don’t have the energy to eat,” she said. “But, I’m doing better.”
She gets teary-eyed as she talks about how she used to have long hair and weigh 140 pounds.
“Can’t do what I used to,” she said, adding that physical therapy causes a lot of pain.
Her wheelchair weighs 375 pounds and she weighs more than 225, so she can’t use the Lawrence bus system because the weight limit for the lift is 600 pounds.
But, Mortell said she doesn’t mind using her wheelchair.
“That’s how I travel,” she said with a smile. “I love to roam. I can’t stay put in the house.”
She buys groceries, goes to the library and bank, and visits friends. She worked at Jubilee Cafe for 14 years and has volunteered at the Lawrence Community Shelter. She’s done a variety of jobs during her lifetime. She talked about getting her hands greasy as a diesel engine mechanic.
Mortell is a kind person who doesn’t complain even though her back “feels like someone is stomping” on it.
She has a positive outlook on life and will call you “honey” with her Southern accent.
But when she learned that the Lawrence SRS office was closing, she said, “I was hotter than all firecrackers.”
That’s her way of saying she’s really angry and it’s no laughing matter.
On two hot and humid days — which affects her breathing — she made a point to attend public forums about the closure of the local SRS office.
That didn’t surprise Donovan, who described Mortell has a fighter and activist.
“The fact that she went through her pain, the tiredness and the heat of that day, tells you this is an important matter to her,” Donovan said.
Donovan said most of her clients who have disabilities and receive SRS services aren’t able to get out. That’s why she described SRS’s plan to close the local office as disastrous.
“It’s a huge hardship to ask people to go out of our town for anything. They can’t get to a doctor’s appointment in Kansas City, so how are they going to get to an SRS office?” she asked.
Donovan said to receive food assistance, a lot of people need to make face-to-face appointments with their SRS workers because they have to show receipts, including Mortell.
Internet access is not going to help the situation. A friend recently bought a computer for Mortell and she’s able to use it only with the assistance of her personal care attendant. She’s learning to reconnect with friends through Facebook.
“She’s my teacher,” Mortell said of Anderson.
Donovan said she can’t figure out how to apply for Medicaid online, so she doesn’t expect her clients to.
“I think having that in-person resource is massively important,” she said.
For people with disabilities, body language is important and that was obvious during my interview with Mortell.
When she had trouble comprehending questions, I saw a confused look on her face. She also carefully watched my body language and facial expressions to know whether she was getting her point across.
Donovan said SRS workers are supposed to be connecting their clients to resources and helping them locate ways to improve life.
“We take that away from people and there’s a huge hole,” she said. “So, basically what they are saying is, ‘You are out of luck. You don’t get to communicate with your worker face-to-face’ and I think that’s appalling. I am pretty disturbed by that.”
Mortell said someone recently called and said that SRS had closed her case, which caused anxiety. She immediately went to the local office and found out that it wasn’t true. It was resolved quickly.
“People don’t go to SRS when things are going great. They are usually in crisis,” Donovan said. “It’s always a crisis when you are in poverty and when you are disabled and you need assistance.”
Donovan said SRS often mails notices about changes in services. She gets notices for Mortell. At the bottom of the notices, it states to contact SRS if there are questions. She said that may seem easy, but for people with brain injuries the constant influx of paperwork is confusing and they need to go over it with an SRS worker.
SRS also has a Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP. Donovan said the applications are difficult and require a lot of information, so typically someone helps. Without the local office, she believes people won’t apply and as a result their utilities will be shut off.
“This is going to be disastrous for more people than we can even count right now, and what it’s going to end up costing people — we can’t even measure at this point.”