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Article updated: 2/19/2013 5:09 AM

Disabled woman's smartphone reveals glitch for all of us

By Burt Constable

Growing up with a developmental disability, Carpentersville native Cindy Moore found a home decades ago with the Little City Foundation in Palatine. People at that agency helped her start adulthood with a steady job, a roommate and an apartment she could afford. Now 53, Moore takes a public bus to get to her job in the mailroom at Motorola Solutions in Schaumburg, uses her home computer for Facebook and solitaire, watches her favorite Disney TV shows and enjoys an independent life.

But buying a smartphone led to trouble.

"I make a thousand phone calls," says Moore, whose antiquated flip phone was fine for calling her mother in Florida five times a day, as well as her sister in West Dundee and her brother in Carpentersville until recently. "It kept dropping calls and crackling."

So during one of her weekend bus trips to the local shopping malls, she visited a T-Mobile store. She walked out with a new smartphone.

"I think it was $29," she says, lifting the smartphone from its box and turning on the power as a small green robotic alien character pops up on the screen with an audio prompt. "I like that little guy, shwoop. But some of this stuff, I don't even know how to use."

Admitting that she's always struggled with math and money, Moore says she didn't understand that her monthly phone bill would jump from $40 to about $100 because of a data package, which led to more financial trouble as she unknowingly bought features she didn't use. Her phone service was suspended after she didn't pay the $600 or so needed to get out of her predicament.

"This is a very precarious time for people with disabilities and their financial protection," says Shawn E. Jeffers, executive director of Little City, noting that people can buy expensive items and enter into contracts with the push of a button. "Having a disability does not remove someone from being responsible and accountable."

Moore's younger sister, Wendy Ballschmiede, and Wendy's husband, Randy, stepped in to help and got her a cheap, prepaid phone. With Moore's permission, Wendy Ballschmiede now has the power of attorney over her sister's finances. Once T-Mobile higher-ups heard the full story of Moore's disability, an executive promised Friday to cancel Moore's contract and even forgive her outstanding bills and late fees as long as she returns the phone, says a grateful Ballschmiede.

While looking into the phone finances, the Ballschmiedes also discovered Moore bought $750 eyeglasses that she can't afford, and piled up more debt during her Christmas shopping by agreeing to sign up for credit cards she didn't know how to use.

Talking with Moore, who proudly shows off her crayon drawing set in a bedroom decorated with stuffed animals and unicorns, it seems obvious that her developmental disabilities made her a victim of people who sold her stuff she didn't need.

But who hasn't bought unnecessary stuff?

Americans, from teenagers to senior citizens, buy phones and gadgets we don't need or know how to use. We buy houses we can't afford. We run up debts on credit cards. We buy health club memberships and never go. A middle-aged man with a wife and young kids buys a sports car with no back seat. An elderly aunt ignores her nephew's advice and buys that time-share she'll never use. A woman rejects her mom's advice and marries that guy everyone else knows is a jerk. Cable channels and websites urge us to make unwise decisions. I have been buying into a Cubs season ticket package for years solely because it guarantees me the chance to buy a World Series ticket at Wrigley Field, and I am a person who thinks that might happen.

That struggle between protection and independence, between looking out for others and letting people live their lives, is tricky, says Jeffers, who adds that Little City employees continue to "coach" Moore with her work, apartment, finances and life.

"What we try to do on a regular basis is teach, teach, teach and teach," Jeffers says. "We try to provide the support systems, just like with our own kids."

And just like with our own kids, people with disabilities sometimes ignore advice, make a poor choice or just mess up.

"What we want Cindy to understand is that we love her, we still care. She made the mistakes people make," Jeffers says, adding that Moore "has done darn well" in her life and recently was featured in a Little City video explaining her success at work. "Sometimes, just like you and I, we go off that path. … It's part of the human experience."

Moore understands her mistake and is working with nice people to fix things. In that way, this woman with the developmental disability is way ahead of many Americans.

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