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Chuck Wright's Recycled Computer Clocks
Chuck Wright's Recycled Computer Clocks

Disability Matters: An Online Love Story

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All this year we're reporting on people with disabilities in our series, Disability Matters. For so many of the people we've met, their computer has had a transforming affect on their lives. Studies support this: people with disabilities spend much more time on the internet than non-disabled people do. And they're far more likely to say that the internet has significantly improved their quality of life, kept them informed and connected to the outside world.
But people with disabilities are also less likely to be able to afford a computer. And currently, New York State will not pay for a computer unless specifically work or school-related. That wouldn't have helped Chuck Wright and Maureen Norcross.
Theirs a sort of online love story. They fell in love on a disability chatroom. Now they're together on eBay, as well. He makes clocks out of recycled computer parts, she carves and paints wood. They're part of a workshop at the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce called the Northern Adirondack Trading Cooperative. The Cooperative is a finalist for a global award for microenterprise initiatives. This Saturday, the group is heading down to New York City for one of the largest one-day street fairs in the country.

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Chuck Wright makes clocks. But the parts in his workshop aren't what you'd expect.

Chuck: "Yeah I have a box of motherboards, a box full of hard drives."

Chuck is a big man, he walks slowly with a cane. The techy font on his t-shirt reads: "I love it when you talk nerdy."

He was an electronics technician until diabetes and chronic pain forced him to retire at 40. He kept falling off ladders and the pain meds slowed him down. Making clocks also keeps him busy. He glues together computer parts in a collage, maybe adding a wood frame, or brass pendulum, or miniature fan.

Maureen: "He just comes out--he'll pick through his box of stuff--and he just keeps coming up with something different.

Maureen Norcross is Chuck's wife. She's also a woodworker and painter.

Maureen: "He wants to take my birdhouse and turn it into a clock. I wouldn't let him do it."

Chuck: "I even put a clock in the top rim of one of her bigger pots."

Maureen: "He'll put a clock on anything he can get his hands on. I painted him a tray, a wooden tray with the name Hope on it. And he was just itching for months, "I'm gonna put a clock face on this..." So now it's hanging on the wall with a clock and a pendulum...it's not a tray anymore, now it's a clock."

Maureen also sells crafts on eBay. Her specialty is a painted wood holder that dispenses yarn while you knit. And like Chuck, she lives a life of constant pain. Maureen has a genetic disease known as Familial Partial Lipodistrophy. It affects 1 out of 25 million people. And it makes painful fat deposits under the skin, on her nerves and tendons. She was diagnosed at age eighteen. At 42 she got her first computer.

Maureen: "I wanted the computer to do research on my illness. And then I realized that you could go into chatrooms and talk to people."

Chuck was hosting a chatroom, living in Alabama, in a marriage that crumbled after he went on disability. At first the only thing he knew of Maureen was her screenname. Behind blue eyes.

Maureen: "And why I chose the name originally is because of the old song by The Who, Behind Blues Eyes, nobody knows what it's like. That was me. I thought nobody knew what it was like to be in pain all the time. I know better now."

Chuck: "A lot of people don't know the pain that we go through. It's a big thing for us just to get out and go to the store. Carrying groceries, you know, if it's something heavy both of us will lift it. You know, there are a lot of times if we go to the grocery store, we'll just bring in the cold stuff until we feel good enough--it might be a day or two before we go out and get the rest of the groceries."

There are two maps on their living room wall: one of the United States, another of the world.  Both are covered with pinholes marking the friends they found online.  The internet also helped them find customers. Their eBay stores were launched through the Northern Adirondack Trading Cooperative, a small business workshop at the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Because there's scant market for computer clocks in Malone.

Chuck: "I've given away more clocks than I've sold up here."

Online, Chuck is doing a brisk father's day business. And he's been picked up by out of state galleries. Maureen likes eBay too.

Maureen: "I'm more comfortable online, and selling online, and I seem to be more successful online than craft shows. Face to face at a craft show, I'm tired, I hurt, and I'm sure that comes across to the customer and it comes across as a negative."

This Saturday, Chuck and Maureen are making an exception. They're heading down to New York City to the biggest craft fair of their lives. It's a one-day street fair said to attract over a million people. Chuck is worried about security.

Chuck: "People walking away with a sweater or a clock, it's just going to be a loss for us. Because they're going to blend into the crowd. We can't go after them--you know--maybe I could throw my cane at them or something. But I can't wait to go, I'm really looking forward to it."

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Greg Warner in Malone.

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