Quadriplegic Todd Stabelfeldt wants to help others overcome their disabilities through technology. A model for independent living
Like many others in his line of work, Todd Stabelfeldt grew up with technology.
He watched with interest as the Internet took off in the 1990s, and quickly developed a liking for computers.
Eventually he plugged in, taking classes and landing a job at Cortex Medical Management Technology, a Seattle software company.
“I’ve wanted to reach out since I was a young kid,” said Stabelfeldt, who at 29 is now Director of Operations at Cortex.
It is that impulse – the desire to connect – that in part influenced Stabelfeldt’s career choice and his interest in gadgetry.
But he has an equally pressing personal motivation to remain on the cutting edge.
As a quadriplegic, it is technology, combined with initiative and ingenuity, that affords Stabelfeldt his most prized possession — independence.
“That’s a word that for me that is bold, italicized, underlined and capitalized,” said Stabelfeldt, surrounded by the various devices at his Wyatt Way apartment that allow him to work and live, for the most part, on his own terms. “There’s no dollar amount to solve for that.”
Neither, he said, are there enough dollars to solve the plight, however uncommon, of someone in his position – physically disabled, but able and preferring to work.
Though he strives toward independence, living in a standard apartment with a roommate, Stabelfeldt still requires care that isn’t getting any cheaper.
In fact, he expects his care costs this year to double, to $110,000, due to recent changes – his caregivers can no longer be designated as independent contractors – that will require him to pay higher taxes.
He makes too much money to qualify for government help, but not enough to pay for the support he needs.
So, even as he continues to pursue greater independence, he must continually fight to preserve what he has.
Now, through the creation of a foundation that will bear his name, he wants to help others facing similar challenges.
Funded by several technology companies, the Todd Stabelfeldt Foundation is slated to launch in the next few months. Its aim is to connect people with disabilities to new technology and other help that might otherwise elude them, and to reach out to occupational therapists in an effort to continually improve available care.
Stabelfeldt’s life, too, will be enriched.
By sharing his story, he hopes to become a national spokesman for overcoming disabilities; he’s even in discussion with an island developer about the possibility of building a customized condo that would serve as a model for disabled, but independent, living.
Stabelfeldt was recently the beneficiary of about $30,000 worth of new batteries that will back up the labyrinthine electrical system he’s fashioned in his apartment. Donated by power system company Chloride Group, PLC, the batteries will replace the outdated and underpowered ones that can no longer keep up with Stabelfeldt’s gadgets. Without proper backup, Stabelfeldt’s entire system – including the breathing apparatus he uses when he sleeps – are useless if power outages occur.
Chris Gerhardt, who lives on Bainbridge Island, is helping Stabelfeldt organize the new foundation. He said it needs between $1 million and $2 million to get off the ground.
Several tech companies – among them Chloride and Internet technology consulting company Denali Advanced Integration, of which Gerhardt is the president – have committed funding to the foundation, the logistics for which are now mostly in place.
Its mission, Gerhardt said, is far reaching.
“This isn’t just about Todd,” he said. “This is about sharing what Todd has done.”
As a fellow techie, Gerhardt is impressed with Stabelfeldt’s resolve and resourcefulness; as his friend, he is inspired.
“Sometimes I’ll start to complain to Todd about something, and then I think about it and realize I can’t,” he said. “I joke with him about it. I tell him it’s hard being friends with someone you can’t complain to.”
Stabelfeldt admits he’s not been immune to the urge to complain, since suffering the injury – he was accidentally shot by his cousin at the age of 8 – that robbed him of most physical movement.
He remembers one time in particular, when he was a child, that he was upset by a bed sore.
“I got really angry about my whole situation,” Stabelfeldt said. “There was a moment when I said, ‘What are you going to do with this. This is not acceptable. I need to make a change.’”
So, Stabelfeldt shifted his attitude.
He began looking for way to complete the daily tasks that most people take for granted, like turning on lights or opening doors. Some fixes were simple. Others required elaborate planning. He adapted parts to non-conventional uses. If he couldn’t find the right piece, he called around until he did.
Slowly, solutions came, until eventually Stabelfeldt had created the ever-evolving system that now is vital to his independence.
“Part of it was just waiting for technology to catch up with my needs,” he said. “Items were being created at a rapid rate for convenience so that people could pick up a two liter of Coke and a bag of chips and never leave the couch.
“Those convenience items, if slightly augmented, become independence items for me.”
His cell phone, for example, is an off-the-shelf model. But Stabelfeldt had to come up with a way to modify it to fit his unique needs. Like all of his creations, the entire unit must be voice activated, or must respond to movements of his chin, breath or face. Compared to some of his projects, Stabelfeldt said, the cell phone modification was fairly simple. Unfortunately, simple doesn’t always equate to cheap – in this case, the fix cost several hundred dollars.
More complex arrangements are found at his workstation – Stabelfeldt still physically commutes to Seattle once a week – and in his bedroom, where he has access to more movies and entertainment than he has time to enjoy.
He controls his computer by way of his mouth, which he uses to move the mouse via a special instrument; puffs of air equal mouse-clicks.
Gerhardt, who met Stabelfeldt about four years ago during their respective ferry commutes, said he regularly marvels at his friend’s ingenuity.
“This doesn’t exist anywhere,” he said, of Stabelfeldt’s cell phone. “He came up with it in his head.”
Though he knows some of his innovations can help others, Stabelfeldt said not everyone can benefit directly from them. For one thing, he’s on the severe end of the paralysis spectrum; since many who suffer his specific injury don’t survive the initial trauma, there are few people who even face his living situation, let alone while trying to hold down a full-time job.
“My circumstance is so outside of the norm that I’ve almost fallen into the category of the bizarre,” he said. “That’s part of the frustration for me – I just can’t handle the fact that I’m the only one I know.”
Aside from making available some of his gadgets, Stabelfeldt hopes to motivate others with his story. He already participates in mentor programs and has increasingly taken on large speaking engagements. This year he spoke at the Denali Christmas party.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” said Denali Executive Vice President John Convery. “Seeing him in front of those people is tremendously inspirational. He teaches people that if they set the bar high and reach high they can improve the quality of their life.”
Last month, as workers were installing his new batteries, Stabelfeldt said he’s excited about the promise of his new venture.
As for his own troubled financial situation, he’s frustrated, but hopeful. Gerhardt has often said Stabelfeldt is a victim of his own success, since he’d rather work than be supported by the government. Not content to be a victim, Stabelfeldt characterizes the situation differently.
“Either this year I’ll make it or I’ll end up in a nursing home,” he said. “But I don’t settle. I don’t rest until it’s done.”