Wheels set student’s dream in motion

Jeremy Fugleberg

Jeremy Fugleberg

And you thought your wheels were nice.

Cristina Colburn’s titanium manual wheelchair is $5,500, lightweight and full of options.

“It’s thirty-five pounds, I just got it weighed yesterday,” she says, smiling. “There’s so much in this chair that I don’t know about. I’ve only been in here for about a year and a half.”

Colburn, 22, is a sophomore apparel merchandising major who is paralyzed from the chest down due to an accident in 2002. She says the accident (she fell off a balcony) was hard on those close to her.

“It wasn’t easy for them. I’ve had more than one tragedy in my life, so it’s just like another blow to them,” she says. “But my mom’s been really, really good to me. I lived with her, because I needed to learn how to live in a wheelchair.”

After the accident she went to a rehabilitation place in Denver and worked on adjusting to the new ways she had to do everything.

“I was at Sioux Valley for a month, and then I was at rehab (in Denver) for two and a half,” she says. “I had a condition that produced 102 degree fevers. It slowed me down in rehab. It was a better place to go than here, though, because I’d probably not be driving.”

Yes, driving. She drives a Toyota Celera with special hand-operated gas and brake controls.

“I used to drive dirt bikes when I was a kid,” she says. “It has that kind of handle.”

But there was a lot she had to learn before she learned how to drive. Colburn had to learn many things that most people take for granted.

“I learned how to sit up again,” she says. “I learned how to get dressed, learned how to take a shower by myself, learned how to do lots of things. We learned how to do curves and stairs and stuff (in the wheelchair). It gets better but it’s still hard. I’m still learning things.”

She says that she was interested in apparel merchandising before, but the accident focused her attention on clothes that people in wheelchairs wear. Her own frustration drove her to think about designs that would be easier to put on and wear.

“It’s a pain in the butt to find pants because I have to buy them too big. You don’t want them to be too tight around your waist, and when you’re sitting down, you want a longer length.”

She says there is clothing for people in wheelchairs, but it’s either for older people, or just not very stylish.

Her dream is to eventually go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

“And maybe I might start writing a letter to one of the major designers and explain what my idea is, and then branch off from there,” she says.

In the meantime, Colburn lives with her cousin and another roommate off-campus. She has a cockatiel, likes watching movies (suspense preferably, but not any sci-fi), and is a recent convert to forensic crime-solver shows on television.

She’s doesn’t like going to the bars, but has joined some clubs on campus recently, partly to make some friends.

“I haven’t met a lot of people. I would like to, but I think that it’s harder,” she says. “I think a little bit in the back of my mind is ‘what do they think about someone in a wheelchair?'”

But optimism seems to be the continuing theme of her life. From recovering from the accident, to driving herself anywhere she wants to go, to dreaming about her future, Colburn’s unstoppable confidence shines through.

“People are always going to stare, they’re always going to wonder,” she says. “I think if I let that get to me it would bother me.”