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West central Minnesota woman hopes for greater independence

Kristal Dahlager recently received her Minnesota driver’s license, and now is recruiting friends to vote for her in an online contest in which she could receive a specially equipped vehicle. It would give her the freedom to drive herself to work and to visit friends and family without relying on others. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

SACRED HEART — No time was more trying for Kristal Dahlager than the final years of high school.

Her friends were involved in sports and activities, had their driver’s licenses, access to vehicles and the independence to go, go and go.

“It was a hard time for me, not because of other people but because of my disability,’’ said Dahlager. “I kind of focused on it too much instead of what I could do.’’

Her focus today is entirely on what she can do, and the independence she might just gain.

Just last week, Dahlager, 26, of rural Sacred Heart, passed the behind-the-wheel test to obtain her Minnesota driver’s license by using a specially equipped vehicle she leased for the occasion.

She is also in the running to be a finalist in an online contest in which the top prizes are specially equipped vehicles for disabled persons. The contest is sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. Its aim is to promote awareness of the abilities and needs of those with physical challenges.

Those going online to the website can vote daily for Dahlager until May 10. At last count she was number 22 of 1,036 people in the contest.

The top 5 percent advance to a final round. Last year the top three were able to win specially equipped vehicles, which are expensive.

The costs to modify a mini-van and add the electronics for a joy stick Dahlager would need start at more than $60,000, and that’s not including the cost of the vehicle, she noted.

Absent a specially equipped vehicle, Dahlager is dependent on friends and others for transportation.

She knows the odds of winning a nationwide contest could be long, but she’s already beaten tougher odds.

It was only when her mother went into labor that doctors realized that Dahlager had physical disabilities. Then came a flight to an urban medical center.

Doctors there erroneously believed she had no limbs, that her brain was a mass at the base of her spine, and that she had a mineral deficiency that would cause her skull to be crushed by a natural birth, Dahlager said.

She said doctors hinted at exercising the fatal option, warning her parents that she would never amount to anything. Her parents, Deb and Sam Dahlager, would have none of it. Kristal was delivered safely by C-section.

Her disabilities were not as severe as feared before her birth. Yet, the disabilities still had doctors and her parents unsure of what was ahead for her. “I guess when I was even a baby, they never knew if I was going to be able to smile or sit up by myself,’’ said Dahlager. “So everything was just kind of big when it happened.’’

She began receiving care at the Gillette’s Children’s Hospital in the Twin Cities, where she was diagnosed with arthrogryposis. It’s a congenital condition that affects the joints and the muscles connected to them. She’s been through surgeries and lots of physical therapy.

She has limited use of her limbs, and needs a personal care attendant’s help with some of her daily needs.

Other than that, she is more than capable to do whatever she wishes. She graduated in 2005 from Renville County West High School in Renville, and went off to college at the University of Minnesota, Duluth to major in statistics and actuarial science.

She discovered it wasn’t the right fit for her, however. “God just felt I needed a different route,’’ she said.

It led her to law school at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. She graduated in May 2012 and spent the next two months putting in 12- and 15-hour days preparing to take the Minnesota bar exam, which she passed.

This month, she began work in transactional law with the firm of Anderson, Larson, Hanson and Saunders in Willmar.

She’s preparing to move from rural Sacred Heart to a townhouse in Willmar. She has become involved in her church, the Evangelical Free Church of Willmar.

She credits God, her parents and friends with helping her through difficult times, and now knows better than to worry about disabilities.

“I feel like everyone has a disability. Some people’s disabilities are just a little more evident than others,’’ she said.

“Everyone is uniquely made, that’s why we all have to work together to make the world run.’’

Yet if she gets her chance, she would love nothing more than the independence to drive herself to work and wherever she needs in a specially equipped van.

Her new townhome has a two-car garage, and has plenty of room for the hoped-for mini-van and its ramp, she pointed out.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335