For Betty Grant Spires, a polio victim, the answering service she has run from the foot of her bed for the past 16 years is as much a lifeline as the positive pressure machine she uses to breathe in the daytime and the device that rocks her bed so she can breathe at night.
"It brings the world to me, since I can't get out there," she said. "I've met a lot of kind people."
Spires, now 46, was stricken with polio in August 1965 when she was 24 and supervisor of the bookkeeping department at the Suburban Trust Co. in Silver Spring. She and her husband were separated at the time, and their only daughter was not quite 2 years old.
The disease left her a quadraplegic, with only slight use of the toes of her right foot. It could not destroy her sense of independence, which is evident when she talks about her business, and what it means to her. It allows her to support herself and her husband, who has been ill for the past four years.
She operates a small console attached to the foot of her bed in her Silver Spring living room. A tape recorder rigged up nearby often goes unused because "I've got a good memory," she said. Her husband and one of the two care-givers always with her help out when they are needed. Her speech is only slightly impaired by the breathing tube she must use.
The phone lines ring frequently, and she speaks into a stationary mouthpiece that juts over her bed.
"I can't even move my hands but I can take care of myself," Spires said.
Lately she worries because at least seven of her customers have stopped using her aswering service. "A couple of them retired," she said, and some "were just starting out in business and they got discouraged."
As the income from the calls that she takes day and night, seven days a week, has fallen off, her expenses have increased. She recently received a notice that the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in the White Oak Apartments complex would be raised again.
Spires already pays "at least $500" each month for the two round-the-clock care-givers who live in on rotating days. Her answering service currently brings in about $600 a month. Her Special Security disability pay of a little more than $200 a month helps, along with the food stamps she and her husband use. "But that still isn't enough," she said.
She does not want to accept aid. "I never ask for mercy or beg for anything," she said.
Earlier in her life, the March of Dimes paid for her round-the-clock care, Spires said. But she was nagged by the worry that the time would come when their aid would stop. She started the answering service to prepare for that time, and it eventually came.
"They turned me over to welfare," she said.
"Welfare said I either had to stop the answering service and take their check or keep my answering service and forget about their check.
"I forgot about their check," she said.
Spires does not reject the help of those who care for her. She says she is thankful for the help she receives from her church, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, on New Hampshire Avenue. They hold a folk mass at her apartment once a month, she says, and "they bring me communion and help find customers."