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Tyler Stosich’s wheelchair is controlled by a straw. Normally, he doesn’t think twice about it. But COVID-19 turned normal on its head, so Stosich decided to innovate.

“I was just sitting in the shower where my best ideas come to me, and I was like, man, I’m just going to route a piece of tubing through that mask,” said Stosich, who lives in Missoula and is involved with Camp BullWheel near Ennis, a relatively new camp dedicated to helping people with disabilities fish independently.

With the help of his girlfriend, Kelli Walsh, Stosich has converted a small handful of N95 masks to be compatible with a sip-and-puff wheelchair, the kind he and others with little or no use of their arms and legs often use.

While everyone has faced new challenges because of the virus, Stosich said there’s some challenges disabled people are facing that others might not think about.

“There’s already a slew of barriers to begin with,” said Stosich. “A lot of us still need caregivers coming into our home on a daily basis, or regular medical care that you just can’t do through a telehealth Zoom meeting.”

Many people with disabilities have caregivers help them with things like prepping meals, administering medication or just getting dressed for the day. Those things can’t be skipped, Stosich said, but they can put both caregivers and those receiving care at risk.

“Caregivers are out there doing their job and it’s risky for them as well, but they also are in other homes and possibly hospitals and nursing homes. It’s difficult to isolate when you need people in your home daily,” he said.

Another obstacle for some was sorting out disability payments for those who needed a doctor to verify that a potential recipient met disability qualifications. Many doctor’s appointments were postponed, potentially also postponing disability payments to some.

A less visible challenge, Stosich said, is loneliness. People who are disabled, especially those who live alone, can already feel more isolated than abled peers.

“This creates even more isolation,” Stosich said. “You want to be there with your family or your nieces and nephews and moms and dads, but it’s just not worth the risk for somebody so vulnerable.”

Stosich said that he and Walsh are happy to make more converted N95 masks for those who need them, hopefully making some of the unique challenges feel a little less daunting as the virus continues to affect Montanans’ lives.

“There’s just these extra risks to an already at-risk population,” he said. “I just thought that mask would hopefully remove some of those risks from some of the highly vulnerable.”

The headline of this story was changed to use more appropriate language when referring to people with disabilities. 

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.