All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for February 2004

When is a van more than a van? When it's independence's+independence

February 22, 2004
Bill McClellan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

There were 11,296 cars stolen in the city of St. Louis last year, and 8,898 were recovered. One of the remaining 2,398 belonged to Stuart Falk.

It was a 1992 Chrysler Town and Country van. It had no driver's seat. Instead, there was space for a wheelchair. There was a lift, activated by a magnet, so Falk could enter the van in his wheelchair. The van's brakes and accelerator were controlled by hand. In other words, this was no ordinary vehicle, and presumably, this was no ordinary theft. No joy riders. No spur of the moment thing.

"I sometimes wonder about it," Falk told me. "Somebody must have seen the lift operate, seen me getting in and out of it. Either they stole it for parts, or they knew somebody with a disability, and figured this is just what he needed. That's what I like to think happened, anyway."

Falk has multiple sclerosis. He is 41 years old. He receives Social Security disability of about $700 a month. That means he has to scrimp a bit. One of the things he scrimped on was auto insurance. He was covered for collision and liability, but not for theft. So since his van was stolen in July, he has been dependent upon Call-A-Ride, which is a fine service but requires a week's notice to guarantee availability.

For someone like Falk, this is a problem. He is, or has been, very active. He is intent on being defined by what he can do, not by what he can't do. He is a member of the DisAbility Project, a theater group made up of performers with disabilities. Their shows are entertainment with a message, and the message is that people with disabilities are just that - people. Falk is also a tutor. He teaches Hebrew. He does not like to spend a lot of time sitting around the house in St. Louis that he shares with two friends.

But he has been doing a lot of that lately. I visited him recently.

He was raised in New York, and attended college at Northeastern University in Boston. He was a runner. Not a world-class runner, but one of those folks you see running along the street in the early mornings. He ran 10k races. He showed me a photograph taken at a road race in Boston. It appears that he is leading the race. "Misleading," he said with a laugh. "The real leaders are out of the picture."

He graduated from college in 1985 and got married a year later. "I remember having trouble standing at the ceremony. And then I had trouble walking. Something was not right," he said.

So he had a series of medical tests. All were inconclusive. He applied and was accepted at Logan College of Chiropractic. A month before classes started, he got his diagnosis. Multiple sclerosis - chronic and progressive. He and his wife moved to St. Louis anyway. He started school. He loved it. But halfway through, he had to quit.

His marriage eventually ended. "There was a lot of pressure on both of us," he said. He worked as a counselor for Paraquad for a time, and he was something of a spokesman for the disabled. That is, he was quoted several times in this newspaper during the debates about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One such story was about the technological advances that have allowed people with disabilities to overcome barriers. "My No. 1 favorite piece of technology would have to be my van. It gives me independence," Falk said.

In July last year, he moved his van from in front of his house on Tholozan Avenue to nearby Roger Place because it was street cleaning day. When he went to retrieve his van the next day, it was gone.

The police report makes no mention that the van was outfitted in any special way. It simply reports that a maroon 1992 Chrysler Town and Country van was reported stolen. A spokesman for the police department said no special effort is made to find any particular vehicle. That is understandable when you figure that 11,296 vehicles were stolen last year, but then again, none meant more to its owner than did this very special van. It meant independence.

Copyright © 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch