Friday, October 31, 2008

The parking access symbol in disguise

Just a little funny from the FAIL Blog. Does anyone out there know if the parking access symbol is painted with a two-part stencil that might have caused this? Or is this picture "fun with Photoshop?" (The FAIL blog comments vote unanimously for "fun with Photoshop.")

Happy Halloween from Media dis&dat!

Michigan technology project guides blind pedestrians

From a University of Michigan press release:

Imagine yourself walking through the streets of a strange city. You have places to go but, as with every journey, the destination is merely the end result. You pass many points of interest along the way, but they are easy to miss, without some form of communication describing to you the virtues of the unique and individual points that might otherwise be overlooked.

Now imagine walking those same streets, in that same strange city, only this time imagine doing it while blind.

A team of students at the University of Michigan has not only imagined that scenario, they’ve done even more. They’ve devised a way to make those streets a little less foreign, so a pedestrian can know what points of interest are in store as he or she, blind or sighted, walks along streets that are both familiar and unfamiliar.

Years ago, the university’s James Knox, now an adaptive technology coordinator for the school’s Information Technology Central Services, led a team of colleagues in developing a system they called Talking Points, which used radio-frequency identification (RFID), transmitted between a hand-held receiver and an information transmitter. Their idea was that a visually-impaired person could carry the receiver as he or she walked through a city, picking up information along the way that would identify important points around them, such as the nearest tourist attraction or historical monument or, perhaps more important, the location of the nearest police station, bus stop, or public restroom.

Today’s technology and the original Talking Points system inspired a group of graduate and undergraduate students at the university to update and expand the capabilities of Knox’s original system, with Bluetooth technology replacing the prototype’s RFID technology.

Bluetooth allows for wireless transmission of data from points both fixed and mobile, enabling a vast array of information to be delivered, even while the user is in transit.

The Talking Points system has some competition but it is the only one that was developed with both sighted and visually-impaired users in mind and it’s the only one that is voice activated. It also allows information to be added or updated on a website, making it possible to keep all information as current as possible. Knox describes the updated system as the first step toward an audio virtual reality.

The research team envisions a time when shop owners, restaurateurs, and entertainment venues enter their latest sales, daily menus, and hottest shows so that it is transmitted via a beacon at their places of business.

Municipalities could also keep pedestrians posted by placing beacons around a city that guide pedestrians to points of interest, parks, and any other public facilities.

The research team says beacons can be purchased for less than $20. Access to the system’s website would allow for quick and easy updates, reviews, and comments from other users, all of which can be transmitted to the pedestrian’s mobile receiver, as desired.

As the pedestrian, outfitted with the mobile receiving device now smaller than the original, about the size of a paperback book, approaches a beacon, general information is transmitted. If more information is desired, the pedestrian can access it using either voice or touch commands.

The student research team was awarded a $10,000 grant from Grant Opportunities [Collaborative Spaces] (GROCS) to develop their Bluetooth-based Talking Points system. The GROCS program funds student research of digital media in collaborative learning projects.

Dr. Phil Show looking for stories of severe punishment in schools

From Dr.

Was your child severely punished at school and you feel they were treated unjustly? Are you trying to fight back the school system but feel stuck? Do have video proof that your child was verbally or physically mistreated at their school? If so and you are willing to appear on the show, tell us your story.
Here's the link if you want to be on the show.

Doctor who can't get permanent residency because his son has Down syndrome should be allowed to stay, Australian Health Minister says

From The Australian. Another story in The Herald Sun explains the reaction from disability groups in Australia.

Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon says Australia needs doctors like Bernhard Moeller, a German-born physician who has been denied permanent residency because his son has Down syndrome (pictured).

Ms Roxon said she would talk to Immigration Minister Chris Evans about the circumstances of Dr Moeller and his family, who moved to Horsham in central west Victoria two years ago to help fill a doctor shortage.

Dr Moeller has a temporary 457 visa that is valid until 2010, but the Immigration Department has rejected his application for permanent residency because his youngest son, Lukas, did not meet the health requirement.

Ms Roxon said the Hovernment valued the contribution made by overseas-trained doctors, particularly those who worked in Australia's rural and regional communities.

"I will be talking to the immigration minister, but my understanding is that a process needs to be undertaken first and that there is a valid reason for this doctor and his family to be eligible to stay here in Australia providing those services,'' Ms Roxon said in Melbourne Oct. 31.

"As a government we understand the importance of having doctors working in our rural and regional communities and we support them in many ways and continue to do this.

"But for this particular case, it's a matter I will raise with the immigration minister, but I understand that those court processes need to be undertaken first.''

Ms Roxon said the Government had made it clear that it supported and encouraged doctors to work in rural and regional communities.

Dr Moeller intends to appeal the decision to the Migration Review Tribunal.

Alabama uses distance learning to educate teachers about autism

From the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama:

Alabama has come up with a low-cost way to educate teachers about how to help the rapidly growing number of autistic children in public schools.

The program will train teachers through the state's distance learning program that is used to offer foreign languages and advanced placement courses to high school students across the state.

The leaders of the Alabama Autism Task Force, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and state Rep. Cam Ward joined officials from the state Department of Education to announce the program Wednesday. They said Alabama will be the second state after Pennsylvania to use this approach.

Autism is a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. It usually appears by the time a child is 3.

Folsom said Alabama's public schools have about 1,000 students with autism-related disorders. That represents a 3,000 percent increase since 1990, he said.

Teachers want to help the students but they often lack the training, he said.Ward, R-Albaster, said using the distance learning system is an inexpensive way to address a problem when state government doesn't have funds to start new programs. Using the distance learning technology is also cheaper than sending teachers to conferences, he said."Funding won't be an issue for this," he said.

Jennifer Muller, executive director of the Autism Society of Alabama, called the state's plans "very exciting."Dr. Mabrey Whetstone, the department's director of special education, and Earlene Patton, an administrator of distance learning, said the training should be available when the next school year starts in August 2009.

"This is a great need for our state," Whetstone said.

The special education director said the Department of Education plans to work with universities to develop the training and hopes that teachers will one day be able to get course credit for completing it.

Ward, a Republican, and Folsom, a Democrat, began working together on autism two years ago because it is a family issue for them. Ward has a daughter with autism. Folsom was joined at the news conference by his niece, Bama Folsom Hager, whose son has autism.

Ward said he hopes the Alabama Autism Task Force will become a model for working across party lines to find low-cost ways to address issues.

National Coalition for Disability Rights criticizes McCain-Palin ridicule

From ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights:

Washington, DC -- The National Coalition for Disability Rights (NCDR) pushed back today against the McCain-Palin campaign for ridiculing the legal rights of people with disabilities. News reports describe McCain-Palin campaign representative Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo), joining Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin at a rally in Rush Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, mocking Presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama for stating that he's looking to nominate judges who empathize with "the disabled."

"It's Halloween and it seems that Sarah Palin's mask of support for people with
"special needs" is slipping. Despite past pandering to people with disabilities, McCain-Palin are actually opposed to vital disability legislation like the Community Choice Act and they want to appoint judges who will further roll back the civil rights protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act," declared NCDR's founder and president, Jim Ward.

NPR's Nina Totenberg has reported that McCain-Palin's and conservatives' "most oft-mentioned prospects" for nomination to the Supreme Court include Ohio Judge Jeffrey Sutton. Sutton was opposed by hundreds of disability organizations when he was nominated by President Bush after successfully weakening the ADA with states'
rights arguments. As a sitting judge, he has recently supported the execution of
criminals with developmental disabilities and has undermined the Help America
Vote Act(HAVA).

Disability rights advocates are further incensed that the McCain-Palin campaign has re-framed this civil rights struggle, one founded in concepts of equality, dignity and self-respect, as an issue of "special needs."

Disability rights advocate, Steve Gold states, "Yes we need support services. Yes we need inclusive education. Yes we need integrated employment. Yes we need equal rights. This not "special". These needs are based on us, people with disabilities, equal members of our communities. We are not inspirational nor are we "special". We are PROUD PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES who should push back when anyone describes us as anything but equal members of our communities."

The National Coalition for Disability Rights is a nonpartisan nonprofit that does not endorse political candidates. We are a coalition of national, state and local disability, civil rights and social justice organizations united to protect and promote the human rights of children and adults with physical and mental disabilities.

Football fans cheer newly accessible Michigan stadium

From The Ann Arbor News in Michigan. In the picture, Joe Yakas, 79, of Canton, Mich., and his daughter Julie Mannlein applaud as the University of Michigan Wolverines run onto the field at the newly accessible Michigan Stadium.

Joe Yakas, 79, of Canton, who has attended University of Michigan football games since he graduated from U-M in 1952, these days uses a wheelchair and has difficulty with his vision. Attending U-M football games in recent years had become an unsatisfying chore, but this year things are different.

From his previous handicapped seats in the endzone, he needed binoculars to see much of the game action.

"But I don't need them here," he said Saturday as he sat in a long row of people using the new wheelchair seating on the east side of the stadium during the Michigan State game.

His daughter, Julie Mannlein, who goes to games with him, enjoyed having a seat as she accompanied her father. In prior years, the wheelchair seating areas in the end zones could become so crowded, she said, "sometimes I had to sit on the floor or between his feet."

Dick Kaufman, 85, of Grosse Isle, has been coming to watch the Wolverines since the 1930s. Despite the loss to MSU, at least the seat on about the 20-yard-line was good this year. "It's unbelievable, really," he said of the new arrangements.

The views of Yakas and Kaufman were echoed up and down the line of special seating Saturday by fans thrilled with the changes that improve accessibility and services for people in wheelchairs.

Complaints about handicapped seating at Michigan Stadium go back a decade, culminating in a lawsuit filed against U-M in 2007 by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. In March, the university signed a consent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the veterans group to resolve the lawsuit.

Before this season, the stadium, with a capacity of more than 107,000, had only 88 wheelchair seats, split between the end zones on Row 72. The stadium can now seat 184 wheelchair users, many along Row 54 across the east side of the stadium bowl.

U-M also changed the orientation of the wheelchair seats in the end zones to improve sight lines and increased the number of accessible bathrooms. More parking for the disabled was added, and concourse ramps are less steep and easier for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

More improvements are coming. Another 145 wheelchair seats will be added at several locations in the stadium bowl by the start of the 2010 season, bringing the total wheelchair seating to 329 people.

Each wheelchair seat is next to a seat for an able-bodied companion.

All of the work, U-M officials previously said, will cost an extra $2 million but won't delay the ongoing $226 million renovation and expansion project. It wraps up in 2010 with the opening of two sideline structures containing luxury boxes and club seats, among other improvements. Disabled fans are attending the games in growing numbers.

"Word is getting around that these are available, that they're great seats," said Marty Bodnar, associate athletic director for ticketing and marketing. "And so we're hearing more and more from people who want to bring family members who happen to be disabled."

Out of the 184 wheelchair seats available in the stadium this season, 137 were occupied for the opening game against Utah, 146 for the second home game against Miami of Ohio, and 157 for the third home game against Wisconsin, said Bodnar.

"It just shows you that there are people out there that will use these seats, once they become available," said Michael Harris, executive director of the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America.

As word gets out - U-M agreed to a comprehensive marketing plan that is still being rolled out - attendance will likely increase.

"If you make a facility accessible, if you make it safe, if you allow people to use it, disabled people will come in droves, and they will love it," said Richard Bernstein, the attorney for the veterans group.

On game days, Ben Kaplan looks after the needs of people in the wheelchair seating sections as head of special duty operations at the stadium. He estimated 80 percent or more of the seats were full at the most recent games.

Wheelchairs are now stationed near the stadium gates, he said, and ticket takers ask fans who have mobility impairments if they would like help getting to their regular seats, or if they would like to swap those tickets for wheelchair seating.

Marti Moore, 58, of Kalamazoo, sat bundled up in a blue Michigan sweatshirt and blue blanket Saturday. While she loves coming to games with her husband, who has had season tickets for 30 years, she needs to use a wheelchair to get around after tearing her hamstrings and can't get to those seats.

"I couldn't have come to the games with him if they didn't have it," she said of the new wheelchair seating.

"I am absolutely thrilled to be here," she said. "I would have been really upset not to have seen it. I've had to watch some of them at home on the couch, and it's not the same."

California court says would-be doctors don't have to be accommodated for med school exam

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

SAN FRANCISCO -- Would-be doctors in California with dyslexia or other disabilities that affect their reading skills aren't entitled to extra time or other accommodations on the medical school entrance exam, a state appeals court said Oct. 30, reversing a lower-court decision.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge had ruled two years ago that California disability law is broader than federal law and requires the organization administering the Medical College Admission Test to accommodate students who show that their disorders make reading difficult.

But the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said state law mirrors federal law on the subject - the American Disabilities Act - and gives the American Association of Medical Colleges leeway in deciding when a student needs assistance because of a serious learning disability.

A lawyer for disabled students in a statewide class-action suit said the association usually denies such requests by reasoning that anyone who has made it through college doesn't need any help on the entrance exam.

The association "has taken the position that if you work hard and if you're smart, you don't have a disability that warrants accommodation," said plaintiffs' attorney Joshua Konecky. He said his clients would probably ask the state Supreme Court to review the appellate ruling that "sets back the law on disability rights, disability access by about 30 years."

Robert Burgoyne, lawyer for the college association, said he was pleased that the court had agreed all questions of accommodation should be judged under the Americans with Disabilities Act, "which can be applied consistently across the country."

The association allows some students with learning disorders additional time and other assistance, like a separate room to reduce distractions, and puts a notation on their scores to inform medical schools that they needed help. Burgoyne said those students get into medical school at the same rate as others, according to the association's research, but Konecky disagreed.

About 37,000 students a year nationwide take the medical school exam, a common requirement for admission to the postgraduate program. Konecky said Judge Ronald Sabraw's 2006 ruling, which the appeals court overturned, would have helped between 50 and 100 California students each year.

The students who filed the suit in 2004 contended they had the knowledge and skills to succeed as medical students and doctors but were unfairly denied the additional time they needed to complete the test because of conditions like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.

Their suit relied on California laws that define disability more expansively than federal law and set stricter standards for prohibiting discrimination. But the appeals court, in a 3-0 ruling, said those laws apply only when a disabled person is denied equal access to some public place because of a physical barrier or is subjected to intentional discrimination.

In this case, said Justice Henry Needham, the college association provides equal access to the exam rooms and administers its policies neutrally, without intentional bias.

The ruling is available at

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More people with autism attending college

From NBC-TV Los Angeles:

For years, the increase in autism diagnoses among young children has been reported, and now colleges and universities are seeing their first influx of autistic students.

"I was very different from the other kids," said George Mason University senior Alex Plank. "Very different."

He always knew that he wasn't a typical child, he said. He struggled to socialize with other kids his age. So when he was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger's Syndome at 9 years old, it explained a lot but left his future uncertain.

"I don't think they really knew at all what my future would be like, my parents or the professionals," Plank said. "Even in high school my parents didn't know if I would graduate, because I at the time, I felt so isolated that I got really depressed."

Plank is now 22. He'll graduate this spring. He's part of the first big wave of children diagnosed under the umbrella of autism who have moved beyond high school.

About one in 166 children has autism, experts say. That's compared to one in 2,500 a decade ago. Colleges are developing programs to accommodate their special needs.

"Typically these are very, very bright students, so typically the impact isn't in the academic arena, it's more in the social arena," said George Washington University's Christy Willis.

That's because Asperger's affects a person's ability to socialize with others. Plank said he's had a hard time making friends and being in relationships.

"I don't know what the typical college experience is, but I probably didn't have the typical college experience," Plank said.

Willis works with students with disabilities at George Washington University, where there are about 10 autistic students enrolled.

Often they need to teach these students social cues, like how to interact with roommates. It's important for parents to make sure a child is ready to be in a college environment, because students need to be independent, Willis said.

"The impact is that disabilities tend to be with the executive functioning area with the organization and planning areas of their lives," Willis said.

At GW, they tailor their programs for each autistic student, Willis said. But nationally, some colleges are developing larger scale programs that include extra help from advisers and special social activities.

Plank said he found college to be a better experience than high school. He felt his professors were more understanding of his issues, and since college classes are shorter than a day of high school, Plank said it was easier to focus. He felt less isolated from his classmates.

"I'm obviously at the same level as them in terms of classes and I'm obviously at the same point in life," Plank said. "So it's just one thing that makes me a more interesting person to other people."

Video, audio instructions help with better communication with disabled patients

From the BBC:

Researchers in Dundee, Scotland will use the latest computer technology to improve hospital care for disabled patients.

They are developing an electronic system to record details such as when someone should be turned in bed or when they should eat and how often.

Audio and video will be used to give medical staff demonstrations of how the patient likes those tasks to be done.

The aim is to ensure those with communication difficulties get the best treatment possible.

It is thought the system could help patients with conditions such as cerebral palsy, Parkinson's Disease or learning difficulties.

The hope is that the patient, their family or carers would be able to add the details in from home or their day care centre ahead of hospital admission.

Researchers in the computing, nursing, health and social sciences departments of Dundee University will work on the project over the next three years.

NHS Tayside and Capability Scotland are also involved.

Researcher Suzanne Prior said: "A consequence of poor patient-hospital staff communication is that the patient's family often take on the majority of caring in hospital, performing all care apart from the actual dispensing of drugs, which can be very stressful for all concerned.

"For example, in a recent study, parents of adults with severe disability reported spending day and night in hospital with their son or daughter because of a concern for safe nursing practice, such as feeding and turning.

"The software will be easy to use and the information readily accessible to those who need it.

"This will hopefully alleviate some of the burden on family members when a patient with communication problems is in hospital and allow them to be more involved in the medical decisions surrounding their care."

Karen Graham, Capability's service manager, said: "We have had concerns when our service users are admitted into hospital that staff don't know how to support them.

"For example, when one service user, Miss D, was admitted recently to have a procedure done, the porter who came to support her referred to her as 'it' which is not acceptable.

"Then a nurse contacted our service to ask when someone was coming to feed her. When the team leader reiterated that Miss D was in their care now, she responded that 'they did not have time to feed her'.

"She was then directed to Miss D's comprehensive eating and drinking plan which would support her."

Doctor with Asperger's added to "Grey's Anatomy's" cast of characters

From The Ausiello Files in Entertainment Weekly Oct. 30:

If you suspected there was a twist surrounding Mary McDonnell's three-episode Grey's Anatomy arc, congratulations, you were right. Turns out her character, a celebrated cardiac surgeon brought in to boost Seattle Grace's national ranking beginning Nov. 13, is living with Asperger's syndrome. "Shonda [Rhimes] thought it would be interesting to have an incredibly skilled surgeon who, socially, is initially misunderstood," explains executive producer Betsy Beers of the autism-related disorder, which is characterized by eccentric behavior and a general social awkwardness. (Think Emily Deschanel's Brennan on Bones.) Eccentric behavior and social awkwardness? Sounds like she'll fit right in! Or will she? Only time -- and my following exclusive Q&A with the fraktabulous McDonnell -- will tell.

AUSIELLO: How does everyone react to your character, Dr. Virginia Dixon?

MARY McDONNELL: In her first surgery she works primarily with Bailey and Karev, who are both sort of caught off guard by her difficulty in communication. They don't really know until the end of the episode that she has Asperger's. It's challenging for them. On the one hand, you're introducing a dramatic and comedic dynamic that people have to react to. On the other hand, you're bringing on a very dignified real human being with a disability that can be very problematic for everyone.

What's it like playing her?
It's been a wonderful experience. Grey's has to do with social nuance and behavior between people, and this is a character who can't really relate to any of that. She comes in and brings a little bit of a different behavior to Seattle Grace.

How different are we talking?
She's still going to hook up with one of her colleagues, right?[Laughs] So far, I have to tell you, I don't see any romance. That just makes me giggle. But she's just coming in for three episodes so far, so we'll see. That's the furthest thing from her mind.

Might your stay be extended beyond the three episodes?
There's always a possibility. I think with this character, there's a great collaboration to kind of experiment with her and with her situation and see the kind of effect it may have on the world of Grey's, because she's very atypical.

Did Shonda create the role with you in mind?
I don't know if it was created with me in mind, but I was told that Shonda had me on her mind as soon as she started thinking about it. She's put a great deal of trust in me, and it's part of why I wanted to do it. Because when someone hands you something this compelling and complicated and gives you good writing and also says, "I'm trusting you to find the nuance here," then you kind of go home and think, I'm lucky to be alive.

Theater troupes give creative outlet

From The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.:

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Since retiring as a Methodist minister, Robert H. King has been a pimp, a judge and, well, God himself.

“It’s been wild,” the 78-year-old said. “It’s been freeing.”

And it’s all happened thanks to AgeQuake Theatre, a local acting troupe created specifically for senior citizens. It was the brainpower of 68-year-old Joan E. Kole, a lifelong actress who found there were fewer and fewer roles available for her as she aged. And because Kole knows that good theater isn’t necessarily about Macbeth or Hamlet — it’s about touching an audience, jogging good memories or telling stories that are good for the soul — she’s been able to draw out the inner actor from everyone from a retired psychologist to a former banker.

With advanced degrees in theater, including a doctoral dissertation in theater and aging, Kole now is spending her retirement years as the director of two local troupes that sport a special brand of actor.

The ARC Shining Stars features about 10 developmentally disabled actors, and AgeQuake Theatre boasts a range of performers older than 55.

“Life performance is very powerful,” said Kole, 68. “With both of these special populations, we don’t frequently see them getting involved. We don’t really know how to relate to these populations. My goal was to say, ‘Here we are. This is what we can do, and we’re just like you.’”

Kole’s work is gaining attention, both locally through AgeQuake’s regional performances, and nationally with a recent exhibition by the Shining Stars for a group of some 70 acting professors in Colorado.

“College and university professors don’t often get to work with this population, so we were able to show that it’s really very easy,” Kole said.

The Shining Stars troupe began about 18 months ago as a way to help those with developmental disabilities better relate with those around them. The group has given its actors more self-confidence to deal with everyday life, while helping audiences appreciate people with disabilities, said The ARC executive director Jacki Neil Boss.

The program has been a benefit to ARC clients “in so many ways we never expected,” she said. “We thought originally it would help with self-esteem and communication, but it has far exceeded our expectations. It’s increased their ability to communicate verbally, which is often one of the stumbling blocks that people with severe developmental disabilities have. They’ve learned to slow down and project their speech.”

As for the AgeQuake troupe, one of about 700 of its kind throughout the country, actors say it offers them the chance to explore their artistic sides — in some cases, for the very first time.

“It gives me a reason to get out of bed. I’m not just staring at the TV,” said Jane Baxter, a 61-year-old from Rockton. “I was a very quiet person. Now my daughter says she hardly recognizes me.”

AgeQuake, which also includes an eight-person ensemble troupe called the AgeQuake Leading Ladies, performs on request — primarily for college acting classes or other senior groups in the area. Most of the scripts are written by AgeQuake members, based on their histories and memories.

“One of the things we try and do is let the audience know, ‘Here are experiences you have had. You can talk about them, and you can remember them. And you can do this,’ ” Kole said.

Mary Snow, a 62-year-old from Rockford, once worked as a professional photographer. Today, she is a Leading Lady and helps write AgeQuake scripts. She
and others will start with a topic list, then begin writing based on their memories.

“You just pull from your past,” Snow said. “For someone, it may be very sad, and for someone else, it’s very funny. We just don’t all have the same experiences.”

And Snow is hopeful the actors of AgeQuake are setting a new standard for retirement, one that creates a life of interest, friendships and learning. As baby boomers prepare to retire, she hopes they’re taking note.

“We’re showing how to go into retirement,” she said. “You’ve gotta do this. You’re not dead.”

Designers consider universal access in new creations

From CNN Oct. 30:

LONDON, England -- The future of design could see the divide between able-bodied and disabled people vanish.

Don Norman , design Professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, and the author of ''The Design of Future Things,'' is issuing a challenge to designers and engineers across the world: Create things that work for everyone.

"It is about time we designed things that can be used by ALL people -- which is the notion behind accessible design. Designing for people with disabilities almost always leads to products that work better for everyone."

Once the champion of human-centered design -- where wants and needs of individuals are the primary consideration in the design process, Norman now believes accessible activity-centered design is a better approach.

This approach creates designs by looking at the job a person needs to achieve in using a particular technology.

Norman told CNN that including disabled people in this thought process would create better technologies for all people, regardless of their level of ability.

"Make cans and bottles that a one-handed person can open and guess what, many people will find it makes their lives easier when they only have one free hand.

"Showers and baths can be made better and safer for all. Make things better for the hard of hearing or seeing and guess what, similar benefits for all," he said.

And technology like this is already being developed.

Korean designers Changduk Kim and Youngki Hong have come up with the "Universal Toilet," an invention that could end the need for separate able-bodied and disabled toilets (pictured).

Despite such innovation, Norman said there would still need to be a shift in the mindset of many major companies.

"The most important first step is to increase the awareness of designers and companies of the need to accommodate everyone. The disabled are not just some small, disenfranchised group: they represent all of us. So the first step is education, awareness, and empathy."

A change in the thought process of designers would also require support and active participation of people with the disabilities being designed for, he said.

Norman also hoped for some more care to be taken with these designs.

"Finally, why are so many aids so ugly? Why can't we rally the design community to make beautiful, elegant canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and other items?"

Such an approach would aid the work of organizations like the Disabled Living Foundation, and Alison Wright's British company EasyLivingHome, which specializes in inclusive interior design to meet the functional and aspirational needs of older consumers.

Norman felt some of the best designs in existence were simple and very old. He believed computers are actually restrictive when it comes to being creative.

"Pencils and small pieces of paper are two of the best objects designed. When you take our computer tools they don't allow us such flexibility. The good technologies are bringing that flexibility back."

He said producing good designs was about making the object understandable, and not trying to base the design on a certain way in which people should use the technology.

"What we should do is understand the job the person is trying to do. Don't try to predict what a human will do. You will get it wrong," he said.

Some of Norman's favorite technologies of the contemporary era include the Nintendo Wii, navigation systems in cars, and Google Maps with the option of being able to select driving or walking.

He is not a big fan of the iPod's design, and believes it has been successful primarily because of excellent marketing, the iTunes store, and other extras which can be bought to accompany the iPod.

Norman was also supportive of users of technology could have input into how it functioned. He said 'mass customization' where designers offer the purchaser the opportunity to add a personal touch to goods was increasingly common.

"I think it's quite rewarding letting people design their own things."

So, what does he see occurring in the future?

Norman said he was excited about 3D printing and the possibilities that could one day open up.

"I can imagine in the future if I was after something like a new dish-mat, I will be able to buy it online and by printing it it gets manufactured in my own home."

He envisaged being able to purchase the raw materials for such items and then input them into the machine.

Wheelchair user in Canada denied access to Hindu temple

From South Asian Focus in Brampton, Ontario:

When Meenu Sikand wanted to visit a temple for the Karwa Chauth festival, she didn't anticipate any problem- least of all those to do with her wheelchair.

"For a long time now there's been no real issue surrounding the acceptance of the wheelchair-bound, and of peoples' willingness to include them in every aspect of civil society," Sikand told SA Focus.

Which was why it came as a shock for this Region of Peel accessibility planning specialist when the priest in Victoria, B.C., told her entry into the Hindu temple was denied her because of the wheelchair.

And she hadn't even been seeking his permission- all she'd been enquiring over the phone was about wheelchair access to the temple for the Karwa Chauth pooja.

The priest, Parmod Kumar, at Victoria Hindu Temple, told her wheelchairs aren't allowed inside the temple. "If you want to come for the pooja, then you have to do it from outside," from where the devotees leave their shoes, the priest allegedly told her.

Sikand was initially more taken aback than angry. The Toronto area resident was there to attend an Independent Living Canada conference, and was just seeking out the nearest Hindu temple for the pooja.

Karwa Chauth is a fast undertaken by wives to seek the well-being, longevity and prosperity of their husbands. Before breaking the fast in the evening, the ladies traditionally go to the temple, and all Sikand too wanted was just God's blessings for her husband Jai Kumar. And now this.

While initially slow to anger, when what was being said to her had sunk in Sikand quickly decided she didn't want to go to the temple- "not if I had to pray in the company of shoes". But that's when the story started doing the rounds, then hit the airwaves.

Officials at the temple moved quickly to limit the damage, insisting everyone was welcome at the temple. Even Parmod Kumar later said that's not what he'd meant, and that all are welcome.

At the time, a furious Sikand even briefly mulled litigation- but that soon passed. Now, she's more saddened that such things can still happen. And ironically, of all people, it this time happened to her, a government accessibility planning specialist.

"But I know, there's no bad intention in our community; it's more a lack of awareness, and of understanding."

Sikand, who had to start using a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury in 1986, said policy issues are easier to tackle- it's the attitudinal ones that are tougher to overcome.

"We as a society need to be inclusive- and we need to spread this message, of inclusiveness, especially among our younger generations," she felt.

Sikand, who is also an advisor to not-for-profit C-Sasil (Canadian South Asians Supporting Independent Living) headed by Harvinder Bajwa- who helped spread awareness about her colleague's misadventure in Victoria- was earlier this week at the organization's ninth anniversary fundraiser.

Again driving home the message of inclusiveness, the event fittingly celebrated Diwali, along with Eid, and Thanksgiving.

Mother questions handcuffing of son with Down syndrome

From the Naples News in Florida:

NAPLES — A 17-year-old Palmetto Ridge High School student with Down syndrome was bound by his hands and feet on Tuesday morning and removed from his classroom by wheelchair after Collier County sheriff’s deputies say he repeatedly punched his teacher in the face.

Though the student, Michael Szanto, (pictured) was not arrested, his mother said her son’s treatment was not warranted.

“This is a child with special needs,” Sagrario Szanto said. “He has Down syndrome. His brain doesn’t work like yours or mine.”

Officials from the Sheriff’s Office and the Collier County School District say that the entire affair is unfortunate but the actions taken Tuesday morning by the teachers and deputies involved were within policy.

“In my review, both the teacher and the sheriff’s deputies followed what would be considered normal procedure in this situation,” Assistant Superintendent John Kelly said.

The situation started around 8:30 a.m. when Palmetto Ridge teacher, Joseph Rader, attempted to put Michael in a time-out room adjacent to the main room, according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report. The report said that Michael “was not having a good morning.”

While being put in the time-out room, Michael punched Rader in the face several times.

School administrators and youth relations deputies responded to the room, and Rader told them Michael needed to be removed because he was using profanities in front of the other special needs students.

When deputies grabbed Michael by the arms, he became limp on the ground and then kicked one of the deputies in the knee, reports said. Deputies handcuffed Michael and then put him in a wheelchair obtained from the nurse’s office.

Because Michael continued to kick while sitting in the wheelchair, deputies bound his legs with plastic flex-cuffs, similar to a zip-tie, and then wheeled him out of the classroom.

Rader declined to press charges in the case.

Sheriff’s Office Capt. Tim Guerrette said deputies attempted to use calming techniques before elevating their response.

“I believe the deputies were prudent in what they did,” Guerrette said. “It was within policy. It’s really a lose-lose to have to do that. ... It’s unfortunate we have to get involved at all. The deputies are very sensitive to the special needs kids.”

Sagrario Szanto said her son didn’t deserve to be handcuffed.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He was sitting on a wheelchair and he had handcuffs on his feet and his hands behind his back. He just said ‘I’m sorry mommy.’ I said ‘You can’t do that to him. You went too far. You went to far. You’re trained to deal with criminals. My son is not a criminal.’”

Michael’s father, Robert Szanto, said he’s been asking school officials for two years to have Michael evaluated by the school psychologist and for a behavior modification plan to be put in place. He said he feels like he was “blown off.”

“Generally after an incident like this, the school does call in the parents to review the behavior plan,” Kelly said. “The school and the parents are going to have to work closely together to understand what happened in this incident and to come up with a plan if it were to happen again.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

British woman with MS loses her appeal for assisted suicide

From AFP Oct. 29:

LONDON — A woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis lost Oct. 29 a legal challenge over whether her husband could be prosecuted if he helps her to commit

Wheelchair-bound Debbie Purdy, 45, launched the case earlier this month, asking the High Court in London to clarify the law on assisted suicide as her health is rapidly deteriorating.

But Lord Justice Scott Baker said Wednesday that the law was clear, and while he had sympathy for Purdy only parliament could change the law.

"We cannot leave this case without expressing great sympathy for Ms. Purdy, her husband and others in a similar position who wish to know in advance whether they will face prosecution," said Baker.

But he added: "This would involve a change in the law. The offence of assisted suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances; only parliament can change it."

Purdy, reacting outside the court, said she was "really disappointed" with the ruling and would take her case to the Court of Appeal.

"People need clarity, and I don't feel any clarity. I hope the Court of Appeal will take a different view but, in the meantime, I'd like Parliament to take the judges' hint to look at the law," she said.

Purdy has said she plans "to live forever," but if her condition becomes unbearable she wants to decide when she dies. She has joined Dignitas, the Swiss body which operates clinics where people can go to commit suicide.

Her ability to carry out everyday tasks is rapidly diminishing, and she now lacks the strength to propel an ordinary wheelchair and has to use an electrically-operated model.

Prosecutors argued that the law does not require it to make a specific policy of the kind sought by Purdy.

They argue that legislation governing suicide dating from 1961 is sufficient. The law makes aiding and abetting suicide punishable by up to 14 years in prison, in addition to existing special guidelines for prosecutors.

Purdy added: "I want politicians to debate what needs to be done because if people talk about needing safeguards, protecting the vulnerable, we have to know what is necessary to protect people."

New mini-documentary on The Unruly Salon

You can watch the new mini-documentary, "The Making of a Perfect Storm: The Unruly Salon", on YouTube.

The Unruly Salon says it tries to "further the discourse on diversity, humanity and civil society; contribute to a fundamental reshaping of the disability narrative; challenge ideas of ‘global citizenship’; and work to realize the full inclusion of all people.

"In the context of a burgeoning disability arts and cultural movement in Canada and internationally, the Unruly Salon Series is an historical first at UBC. Drawing from both internationally renowned scholars of disability studies and professional artists from the visual, performing, musical arts sectors, the Salons will demonstrate a belief that the pursuit of equality and inclusion is a cultural task as much as it is an academic or political one."

The Series is the creation of Dr. Leslie G. Roman, Associate Professor, Dept. of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Education, in partnership with Mr. Geoff McMurchy, artistic director of S4DAC (The Society for Disability Arts and Culture) and Artistic Director for The Unruly Salon Series.

Report: Finding adequate housing a barrier to independent living for British young people with disabilities

From 24dash in the UK:

The housing requirements of young people with learning disabilities are often overlooked or missed off care assessments altogether, despite the commitment to the personalisation agenda, according to new research published Oct. 28.

Dimensions, a leading provider of support for people with learning disabilities, is now calling on providers and local authorities to ensure that staff are adequately informed about assessments, benefits, and dealing with multi-agencies to help young people and families through the transition process, with a focus on independent living.

The study, called 'A Home of My Own', carried out in association with ibk Initiatives, was compiled using information from interviews with young people between the ages of 18 and 30, along with their families and support staff, about their experiences relating to the transition from the family home into their own accommodation.

Dimensions hopes its findings will provide practical help and advice for young people and their families on planning independent living, as well as recommendations for care providers and local authorities.

The research, unveiled Oct. 28 at the Learning Disability Today Exhibition in London, found the key to achieving successful independent living is to plan early.

Thinking ahead to get housing considerations through the community care assessment gate is essential and families should push for this at the transition
planning review in year nine, when students are 13 years-old.

The research findings also highlight that the same bodies that promote independent living for young people with learning disabilities are often the ones that make it impossible for this process to run smoothly.

The work and benefits trap is just one example of this highlighted in the study. Young people may find they are worse off in employment than living on benefits, which caps their ability to engage in meaningful activity and often makes it more difficult for them to move out of home and live independently.

On the back of the study, Dimensions is calling for all those involved in the transition process to ensure housing considerations are central to care assessments. Schools should include person-centred planning as early as possible.

The organisation says care providers and local authorities must make sure their employees have adequate training and the right information so housing needs, both current and for the future, are reviewed regularly and as early as possible. Families too, must engage in triggering the assessment process for their child as early as possible.

The research also noted a marked difference in those young people who were supported by younger support staff or peers. Dimensions is therefore also calling on providers to be creative and relationship focused, to work to encourage younger people to enter the caring profession, and to support families who are often struggling to cope.

Transitions Development Manager at Dimensions, Kate Jackson, said: "It is important to understand the difference between a 'house' and a 'home' - a distinction that all the young people we interviewed made.

"Finding a 'home' takes into account our families, friends, and interests. Yet our research demonstrates that professionals often assume that a house without these considerations is sufficient for a young person with a learning disability.

"Getting a house is not the starting point in achieving independent living. Getting the right kind of support established first is the most important thing. Mistakenly, getting a house often becomes the final measure of success."

Twenty-one year-old Hannah from Norwich was one of the young people to take part in the research.When Hannah left college she wanted more independence and a place of her own. She moved into a rented house with her best friend Stephanie from college and started looking for staff to support her in her new home.

Hannah said: "I was looking for a support worker my age who liked TV soaps, and knew how to use hair straighteners."

Hannah's mum, Sarah said: "Hannah found the support that she wanted through Dimensions. Her course at Norwich City College keeps her busy and she's learning to look after her own money, cook dinner and do her own washing.

"I've been amazed at Hannah's growing confidence since she left home, particularly in expressing herself and saying how she's feeling. Most importantly, I'm no longer Hannah's carer, I'm her mum again."

Dimensions' Chief Executive, David Wolverson said: "The aspirations of young people with learning disabilities are the same as their peers. They want the opportunity to strive for ordinary happy lives, build meaningful relationships and to do the things they enjoy.

"Rather than being the end product, moving into their own home is a crucial stage in helping young people with learning disabilities enjoy increased independence and live the lives they want."

Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland to smooth cobblestone for better accessibility

I happened to visit Trinity College last summer. Lovely place, but those cobblestones can be tricky for everyone so it is wonderful that the college is improving wheelchair access.

Front Square is about to undergo a face lift, improving accessibility for wheelchair users and those with reduced mobility. Smooth stone paths will be set into the existing cobbles, subject to planning permission from Dublin City Council.

The cobbles of Front Square are an iconic part of College. Somewhat surprisingly, however, they only date back to the mid-20th Century. The planning application for Trinity’s Cobble Reduction Programme says, “While it is acknowledged that the existing cobble finish adds a particular character to Front Square, it is noted that they are not of a truly historic character, in that according to current research they were only laid in the past 50 to 60 years.”

Much of the accommodation around Front Square was constructed in the 18th century, as part of the reconstruction of the Great West Front of the College in the 1750s. In 2005 access was improved, with wheelchair ramps added to houses 2,
and 9.

Front Square has been singled out by College’s Cobble Reduction Programme’s project manager, Patrick McDonnell, as having “probably the worst cobbles on the
whole campus. College is obliged to provide universal access under Disability Legislation.”

Dublin City Council objected to the proposed layout as being too disruptive to the character of Front Square. College has been granted conditional planning permission. The layout of the paths was arrived at after four years of consultation with grounds committees and disability access committees.

The most recent proposal sees layout remaining largely the same except for the diagonal paths stretching from the GMB to the 1937 Reading Room and meeting at a central point. The new paths will follow the circumference of Front Square, with an additional straight pathway from the campanile to Front Arch, and one along one side of Fellows’ Square.

At the next Sites and Facilities Committee meeting on 4th November, new drawings will be submitted by the architects Michael Collins and Associates. Dublin Council’s Conservation Architect must also approve any plans, under the conditions of permission.

The type of stone to be used has not yet been proposed, but Mr. McDonnell said it would be a “granite-type cobble, similar to what is currently in place, square in shape but with a smoother surface.”

The catalyst for this project was Part 3 of the Disability Act 2005 which ensures “that an integrated access to public buildings and services is available to people with and without disabilities.”

The question of funding has not yet been resolved, and the project has not gone to tender. The Buildings Office would not give an estimate as the final plans have yet to be approved, and samples must still be agreed.

Sections of the proposed paths are to be laid in the near future, to show how the pathways would interact with the current cobbles’ inset, and to show both the College community and Dublin City Council what the new pathways will look like. One day wheelchair users and high heel wearers alike will successfully navigate College’s most beautiful square - well, the edges of it, anyway.

Canada blocks doctor's immigration because of his disabled daughter in South Africa

From UPI:

CALGARY, Alberta -- Canadian immigration officials have denied a South African doctor's bid for permanent resident status in Calgary because of his daughter's medical condition.

Dr. Stanley Muwanguzi has been working as a critical care physician on a temporary foreign worker permit since 2002 and applied for permanent resident status for himself, his wife, two sons and a daughter already in Alberta, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., reported.

His 22-year-old daughter has been institutionalized in South Africa with cerebral palsy since she was 18 months old, the report said. Muwanguzi said he had no intention of "destabilizing" the girl by moving her to Canada. He visits her twice a year, he said.

A letter from immigration officials denied Muwangazi's request for permanent status, saying a "person whose health condition, severe developmental delay associated with cerebral palsy, might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services" is inadmissible to Canada.

Muwanguzi has appealed but said if things don't happen soon he'll move to the United States, the CBC said.

Texas man gets life in prison for '04 rape of developmentally disabled woman

From The Dallas Morning News Oct. 25:

After years of mystery, someone will finally pay the price for the brutal sexual assault on Frances Cook, a 51-year-old developmentally disabled woman who died under suspicious circumstances after lingering in a hospital for more than two months.

On Oct. 23, Francisco Berber, a man who claimed that she was his girlfriend, received a life sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a disabled person. He will not be eligible for parole for at least 30 years.

"Frances was a sweet thing, an absolutely 100 percent innocent victim," said Assistant District Attorney Erin Hendricks, a sexual assault prosecutor. "He literally raped her to death."

The circumstances surrounding Frances' brutal rape and subsequent death passed with little notice until last year, when authorities arrested her brother, Douglas Cook, in the August 2007 slaying of their 84-year-old mother, Nora. Her death prompted police to reopen Frances' case. Authorities paid for special DNA testing, which showed that a male in Mr. Berber's paternal lineage contributed to the genetic material found inside Frances.

"It's hard to imagine how anybody could harm somebody handicapped, somebody so sweet like my aunt Frances," said Lance Cook, one of Douglas' sons.

At about 10, Frances underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed. Friends and family say she ceased to develop. She remained childlike – with the mind and body of about a 10-year-old.

In the summer of 2004, Mr. Berber had begun hanging around with Frances. A convicted felon, he lived in the neighborhood and the pair frequently played cards together. "By his own admission, he knew Frances was slow in her mind," Ms. Hendricks said. "He would see her color in coloring books."

One neighbor described seeing Mr. Berber lead her into a vacant house on the block. Mr. Berber later admitted that he had sexual contact with her inside the house, but he claimed that he only had sex with her once, though Ms. Hendricks say the victim's injuries belie his claim.

In June 2004, Frances told her mother that she was bleeding. By the time Nora sought medical help, Frances had a severe infection in and around her genitals.

Dr. Bruce Fine, a doctor at Medical City Dallas Hospital, ordered a rape exam. A small amount of foreign DNA was found. "He said it was the worst case of human abuse he had ever seen," Ms. Hendricks said.

Nora later told police Mr. Berber had told her that he wanted to marry Frances. She also suspected he might have had something to do with her injuries.

But Frances told police and doctors that she hadn't had sex with anyone, consensual or nonconsensual. Frances told police she had fallen off of the porch.

Frances never regained consciousness after surgery. She died in September 2004.

The medical examiner subsequently ruled her death a homicide. But police ended up classifying it as an "unexplained death" because they said they couldn't prove how the injuries occurred. Police questioned Mr. Berber, and he denied having sex with her.

On Aug. 18, 2007, neighbors asked police to check on Nora. They hadn't seen her in days. When rescue workers arrived, they smelled an odor and found flies around the windows. They knocked, and Douglas answered the door.

Rescue workers found his mother, Nora, slain in her bed, apparently strangled. Douglas confessed to police that he had beaten his mother on Aug. 13, according to police records. They had frequently argued, and he had already served a two-year sentence in prison for assaulting her around the time Frances was injured.

In April, Douglas Cook pleaded guilty to manslaughter in his mother's death and received a 25-year-sentence. Mr. Berber was indicted the following month on the aggravated assault charge. He later admitted to a relationship with Frances.

"He tried to tell the court that Frances was his girlfriend, that he made love to her, that he didn't hurt her, but the physical evidence overwhelmingly contradicted anything he had to say about his encounter with Frances," Ms. Hendricks said. "Finally, justice has been done."

Wheelchair user rolls across USA to raise funds for accessible housing

From The Daily Item in Lynn, Mass.:

LYNN - Matt Eddy, 31, (pictured) has had a dream of seeing the country all of his life. Every six months, he would get the idea in his head, but dismiss it as a dream that would never be.

But Oct. 25, that dream became a reality when the Lynn resident arrived in Long Beach, Calif., after a 119-day trek across the country. But there's one major difference between Eddy's trip and most cross-country journeys: Eddy rolled across America in his wheelchair.Eddy and his support team left Boston on June 29 and have been traveling ever since. He is the first person to ever travel across the country in a wheelchair.

Eddy, who has suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy since birth, has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 10 and relies on a ventilator to breathe.Ron Steenbruggen, a respiratory therapist at the Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Center in Salem, rides his bike behind Eddy and provides care for Eddy both on and off the road.

Another team rides in a van a bit ahead, scoping out places to stay and the next day's route.The van holds clothes and camping equipment, as well as a charger for Eddy's wheelchair and ventilator.

"If I can take care of him on the side of the road in a tent, then there's no reason why people like Matt can't live alone and not in an institution," Steenbruggen said.

Steenbruggen and Eddy agreed there were two difficult aspects of the trip."The mountains because it drains his battery in his chair," Steenbruggen said. "And the cold up in the mountains. We always worry about the equipment malfunctioning in the cold."

Eddy is also very susceptible to temperature change and covers himself with a blanket when the temperature dips below 75 degrees.

Steenbruggen said the dangers of living in an institution far outnumber those involved with living in a house. Bedsores and pneumonia are just the beginning, but when coupled with a complete lack of mental stimulation or activity, Steenbruggen said it's nearly unbearable.

He also noted the danger of "superbugs," germs that are able to withstand antibiotics, which he said are very common in health care settings. He said 100 percent of people with severe disabilities pick up this type of bug while in an institution and almost 30 percent will die from them.

Eddy met Steenbruggen about eight years ago when he was a patient at the Shaughnessy Center after Eddy received a tracheotomy. Upon his release, Steenbruggen was supposed to go home with him for about a week to get him settled. He hasn't left since.

"They said he was supposed to live six months," Steenbruggen said. "That was eight years ago. And he's healthier now than he was then."

Steenbruggen, who is married and has three grown children, stays at Eddy's house every night to ensure his safety, in addition to his working at his full-time position at Shaughnessy. He bought and renovated a house to fit Eddy's needs, but that house was recently foreclosed and auctioned off.

"We don't even know if he has a house when we get back," Steenbruggen said.

The pair decided to embark on this cross-country trip to raise awareness about the situation of people with severe disabilities and to raise money for Matt's Place, a non-profit started by Eddy and Steenbruggen to help keep Eddy in his house and out of an institution. As of right now, money is low.

"Now, it's very, very short," Steenbruggen said. "Every time we get this low, something happens. We're going minute to minute right now. But whatever's
supposed to happen, happens."

Their dream is to build a housing complex that is designed for severely disabled people.

Steenbruggen said that this plan would cost about $3.5 million. And while that might seem like a lot, consider the following: Steenbruggen says that to keep a person in Eddy's situation at home would cost about $275,000 a year, but to keep just one severely disabled person in an institution costs about $1 million a year.

"Matt's not so different," Steenbruggen said. "He's a human being. He needs a little help with some things, but that's it... There are a million things people like Matt can do."

To donate to Matt's Place visit Donations can also be mailed to P.O. Box 305, Lynn, MA 01903.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Denis Leary apologizes to parents for autism comments

From The Boston Herald Oct. 28:

Comedian Denis Leary, best known for pushing the envelope of convention, apologized yesterday “to all parents of children with autism” after the mother of a stricken Saugus 6-year-old dared him to spend just one hour of challenging daily life with her son.

“I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the people I know who are raising children with autism. In fact, they were the inspiration for the chapter I wrote about the subject,” the Worcester native and author of the provocative forthcoming book “Why We Suck” said in a statement to the Herald.

“To them - and to all parents of children with autism - I apologize for any pain the out-of-context quotes from my book may have caused.”

It was not a complete about-turn for Leary, 51, who maintained that “taking one or two sentences out of context” from the book’s chapter “Autism Shmautism” is “unfair and misleading.”

And though it does not appear Leary will take Jessica George, 41, up on her challenge to babysit her son Maximilian, the mea culpa is his strongest response to date to the growing backlash against his overall thoughts on the human condition due out Nov. 18.

“That means a lot to me,” George said last night. “I don’t have anything against Denis Leary personally. I think he has a good heart. He’s done a lot of good. (But) just because you don’t understand (autism) doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Liebergott, president of Leary’s alma mater, Emerson College, yesterday sent an e-mail to alumni offended by his comments on autism, saying, “I reject Denis’ unfortunate remarks, and I apologize to those of you who were justifiably shocked and offended.”

Leary calls “Why We Suck” a “Feel-Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid” and suggests “inattentive mothers and competitive dads” are throwing money at shrinks “to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons.”

But the critically acclaimed star of TV’s post-9/11 drama “Rescue Me” said, “It was never my intention to exploit the serious subject of autism. . . . . What I wrote was not directed towards children who have autism.

“I do not say in the book - and I have never said - that autism does not exist. In fact, the chapter dealing with autism in my book discusses the struggle of close friends of mine to raise a child with autism.”

Social Security to expedite disability claims

From a Social Security Administration press release. You can read The AP story here.

Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Oct. 27 announced the national rollout of the agency’s Compassionate Allowances initiative, a way to expedite the processing of disability claims for applicants whose medical conditions are so severe that their conditions obviously meet Social Security’s standards.

“Getting benefits quickly to people with the most severe medical conditions is both the right and the compassionate thing to do,” Commissioner Astrue said. “This initiative will allow us to make decisions on these cases in a matter of days, rather than months or years.”

Social Security is launching this expedited decision process with a total of 50 conditions. Over time, more diseases and conditions will be added. A list of the first 50 impairments -- 25 rare diseases and 25 cancers -- can be found at

Before announcing this initiative, Social Security held public hearings to receive information from experts on rare diseases and cancers. The agency also enlisted the assistance of the National Institutes of Health.

Compassionate Allowances is the second piece of the agency’s two-track, fast-track system for certain disability claims. When combined with the agency’s Quick Disability Determination process, and once fully implemented, this two-track system could result in six to nine percent of disability claims, the cases for as much as a quarter million people, being decided in an average of six to eight days.

"This is an outstanding achievement for the Social Security Administration," said Peter Saltonstall, President of the National Organization for Rare Disorders. "It has taken Social Security less than a year to develop this much-needed program that will benefit those whose claims merit expedited consideration based on the nature of their disease. Disability backlogs cause a hardship for patients and their families. Commissioner Astrue and his staff deserve our thanks for a job well done.”

“Unfortunately, many hardworking people with cancer may not only face intensive treatment to save their lives, but they may also find themselves truly unable to perform their daily work-related activities and as result, may face serious financial concerns, such as the loss of income and the cost of treatment,” said Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “The Social Security Administration’s Compassionate Allowances program will help streamline the disability benefits application process so that benefits are quickly provided to those who need them most.”

“This is America, and it simply is not acceptable for people to wait years for a final decision on a disability claim,” Commissioner Astrue said. “I am committed to a process that is as fair and speedy as possible. The launch of Compassionate Allowances is another step to ensuring Americans with disabilities, especially those with certain cancers and rare diseases, get the benefits they need quickly.”

Canadian teen blocked from giving blood because she's deaf

From The Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, Canada:

Halifax teenager Jamie Routledge (pictured) wanted to do a good deed at her school recently but was unexpectedly thwarted.

The Grade 12 student was prepared to give blood at a clinic at J.L. Ilsley High School on Oct. 17. But a person staffing the Canadian Blood Services event abruptly turned Jamie down because she is deaf.

Jamie said Oct. 24 she was humiliated by what she felt was a lack of respect on the part of blood services staff at the clinic.

"Why didn’t they let me give blood? It’s not like I was going to infect other people with deafness," she said through her mother, who was interpreting sign language.

Jamie said she’s heard about other deaf people in Nova Scotia who’ve had trouble donating blood.

"They never did anything to say ‘Sorry’ or ‘Thank you for trying,’ " she said of the clinic’s staff at the school that day.

Her mom, Janet Josselyn, said she was stunned to learn that her daughter, an active young woman who plays varsity volleyball at J.L. Ilsley, wasn’t allowed to give blood.
"She’s really athletic (and) she’s an honours student (and) works as a babysitter for a little boy," Ms. Josselyn said Thursday. "The only thing that that girl doesn’t do is hear."

According to one of her friends, classmate Selena Cotter-Earle, Jamie was denied the chance to donate her blood simply because of her disability.

"This is outrageous," Selena said in a strongly worded letter to The Chronicle Herald. In an interview, Selena said she was so angry about how Jamie was treated that she contacted the newspaper to let the public know.

A spokeswoman with the blood collection agency said in an email that her organization welcomes deaf donors. But "unfortunately, due to a busy clinic . . . our staff misinterpreted the policy and (Jamie) was unnecessarily deferred."

Jillian Brown publicly apologized and expressed hope that Jamie will make a future blood donation.

Ms. Josselyn, a mother of two, said Jamie was born without the ability to hear. The 17-year-old had been hoping to give blood for the first time in her life.

Canadian Blood Services has basic eligibility requirements for potential donors, its website says. These include age, weight, health and frequency of donations.

"Final eligibility determination rests with the screening staff at the donor clinic," the website says.

Ms. Brown said donors who are deaf or hearing-impaired "have always been able to complete the oral part of our questionnaire (called the record of donation) in written form. Even more recently, if they prefer, donors can book an appointment through our national contact centre."

"We deeply regret any inconvenience we caused this donor and we do hope that she will give us another chance," Ms. Brown said.

Though stung by the rejection, Jamie said she still intends to give blood someday and "help save people’s lives."

Jerry Lewis makes offensive comments....again

Comedian Jerry Lewis, long despised by disability rights groups for his patronizing, "pity party" MDA telethons, has once again made a slur against the gay community. In 2007 he used an anti-gay slur during the telecast of The Muscular Dystrophy Association's (MDA) Labor Day Telethon but finally apologized after the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) asked for a formal apology.

This time there's no indication from his spokesperson that he will comment or apologize after calling cricket "a fag game" Oct. 27.

In 1990, Lewis offended many in the disability community by indicating that he thought being disabled was being "half a person." Here's what he said in Parade magazine: ""I decided after 41 years of battling this curse that attacks children of all ages, I would put myself in that chair, that steel imprisonment that long has been deemed the dystrophic child's plight. I know the courage it takes to get on the court with other cripples and play wheelchair basketball, but I'm not as fortunate as they are. I'd like to play basketball like normal, healthy, vital and energetic people. I really don't want the substitute. I just can't half-do anything. When I sit back and think a little more rationally, I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person."

Here's The Telegraph story about Lewis' latest gaffe:

American comic Jerry Lewis has caused outrage by suggesting cricket is a "fag game" during a trip to Australia.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Australian Coalition for Equality have called for an apology after Mr Lewis, who is in Australia performing a stage show, made the remark and mimed swinging a cricket bat effeminately at a televised press conference.

It is not the first time the comedian, whose big break came as the slapstick half of a double act with Dean Martin, has created controversy. During a telethon last year for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which he has presented since 1966, he pointed out one of the cameramen and called him an "illiterate fag". He immediately retracted the remark and later issued a full apology, saying that, "I obviously made a poor choice of words. Everyone who knows me understands that I hold no prejudices in this regard. In the family atmosphere of the telethon, I forgot that not everyone knows me that well."

He had already stunned an audience in 2000 by saying explaining his dislike of women working as comedians by saying: "I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world." A decade earlier, he described those with muscular dystrophy as "being like half a person."

Lewis has also been awarded the Boston University School of Law's prestigious Neal Pike Prize for Service to the Handicapped and was inducted into the French Legion of Honour by decree of President Mitterand in 1984.

His spokeswoman in Australia, Julie Cavanagh, said that he did not intend to comment on this latest episode.

New technology helps people with autism interpret facial expressions

From the intro to a story in The Boston Globe:

PROVIDENCE, R. I. - TJ can usually tell when someone is happy. Happiness is easy, but negative emotions are trickier. Sorrow can look like laughter; sadness can pass for fatigue. The expressions that signify guilt and hunger, he said, "are the exact same thing."

TJ Conway, 16, has Asperger's Syndrome, a neurological condition related to autism,
which makes it hard for him to interpret facial expressions. Is that smile sarcastic, apologetic, polite, angry, or just happy? TJ is not always sure. It's a disability that can strain his dealings with the world.

Today he is holding a small computer, about the size of a hardcover book, that, like TJ, is trying to solve the complex problems of recognizing facial expressions. Point the device at a person's face - as one would with a camera - and, ideally, it will identify the emotion they are feeling.

Although the computer prototype has many bugs to work out, it represents the next generation of technological assist that, if successful, could help people with Asperger's - including the half dozen or so teens in the Providence classroom with TJ - make sense of the emotional world around them. The device is a product of MIT's Media Lab, where computer scientists are studying ways to help machines think emotionally, like humans.

The prototype is called an iSet, which stands for "interactive social emotional toolkit." It's a tablet with a camera on one side and a screen on the other, like an oversized cellphone. TJ points the device at another teen, and holds it steady until a choppy black-and-white video image appears on the screen, along with such labels as "agreeing," "disagreeing," "concentrating," and "confused."

When the computer thinks it's identified a facial expression, a colored dot appears above the corresponding label. The dot grows larger as the computer becomes more confident it has identified the correct emotion.

The software behind the iSet combines commercially available face-recognition programs with machine-learning algorithms that allows the computer to compare new facial expressions to ones it's already seen, and to calculate probabilities that a certain facial expression might mean a certain thing. It was developed by MIT researcher Rana el Kaliouby.

Some social anomalies were apparent among the teens testing the device. One boy talks in blurted lists of facts. Another over-enunciates his words. Some are uncomfortable with direct eye contact. They call themselves "Aspies." Once a month they meet here, at the Groden Center, a school for children with autism and other disabilities. It's a rare opportunity for them to socialize on their own terms.

"There's a comfort level," said Virginia Law, TJ's mother. "They all know that they each have their own little quirks. Outside their group, it's harder."

"I think my awareness of other people's emotions is slightly less than other people's," said Stephen Shea, 16. "I tend to say the wrong thing more often than other people."

For all of them, the challenge is to consciously recognize cues, like a smile or a raised eyebrow, that most of us recognize by instinct.

Mind's Museum explores inside view of mental illness

From The New York Times Oct. 28:

ROME — The logo of the Mind’s Museum is an overturned funnel. It is a reference to a 15th-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch that depicts a doctor using a scalpel to extract an object (the supposed “stone of madness”) from the skull of a patient. The doctor is wearing a funnel as a hat.

“It’s one of the earliest icons of madness,” said Pompeo Martelli, the psychiatrist turned director of this unusual museum, which is in the former psychiatric hospital of Santa Maria della Pietà on the northwestern outskirts of Rome. (In its earlier days “there was an out of sight, out of mind mentality,” he said.) The painting, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, invites the obvious question of who is more mad, the doctor or the hapless patient.

The Santa Maria hospital was closed in 1978 after the passage of an Italian law substituting community services for institutionalized care of many of the mentally ill.

Overturning preconceptions about mental illness is the leitmotif of the eight-year-old Mind’s Museum (, which reopened this month after a high-tech overhaul by Studio Azzurro, a Milan-based art collective that works mostly with interactive and video environments.

“The idea was to make it extremely participatory, a museum that can register and note the impressions of the visitor,” said Paolo Rosa, who founded Studio Azzurro with two other artists in 1982. “It’s not a static but a dynamic project, in continuous flux.”

In one interactive installation, next to a painted sign that reads, “Up close, no one is normal,” visitors try to synchronize recorded and mirror images of themselves. “It’s about seeking a balance between what you are and what you see,” Dr. Martelli said.

In another, visitors sit for a photograph that is projected onto a board along with photos of past patients at the institution, who recount their life stories in sad, lilting taped monologues.

In yet another, visitors are invited to sit at a desk and hold their hands over their ears to hear the singsong whispers of unseen voices. “That’s one of the symptoms of madness, isn’t it?” Dr. Martelli said, smiling.

Explaining the concept, Mr. Rosa of Studio Azzurro said: “The spectator assumes madness and unconsciously adopts the guise of someone on the inside. We didn’t want to dramatize but to include drama, and to let loose the imaginative dimension that madness elicits, which can be fertile even for those who think themselves as sane.”

The Mind’s Museum is a more hands-on — and heads-on — experience than other European psychiatric museums like the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent, Belgium, or the Het Dolhuys Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Unlike some directors and curators in this museum field, Dr. Martelli was not interested in examining the role that art can play in treating mental illness. There is no collection of patient paintings like that of the Prinzhorn collection of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, for example. (Still, the artwork of two inmates and that of a doctor is included in two installations.)

“It’s nice — it’s a way of lightening everything that happened in here,” said Maria Morena, a former psychiatric nurse at the hospital who can remember a time when patients lived 60 to a pavilion, eating with spoons (nothing sharp) and sleeping on cotton sheets so stiff that “they scratched like sandpaper.”

The museum is on the main floor of Pavilion 6 of the former psychiatric complex, which today also houses national health system offices.

“Our mission is linked to public health, but we’re somewhat atypical,” said Dr. Martelli, whose mandate includes preserving more than 250,000 case histories of patients who were treated there since around 1850. “We are preserving and protecting that patrimony.”

It is the largest historical psychiatric archive in Italy, Dr. Martelli said. Using software developed by his staff, other Italian psychiatric archives have been following his lead, and a resulting network will provide researchers with a database that tracks past psychiatric trends and tendencies in Italy.

Yet the museum’s target audience is not scholars or specialists, but rather high school and middle school students, which explains its embrace of Studio Azzurro’s high-tech interactive approach. (At the end of the day, it takes museum workers about 10 minutes to go through the dozen rooms and shut down all the computers and instruments.)

“Today it’s not enough to go into a classroom and hand out pamphlets about schizophrenia or anorexia,” Dr. Martelli said. “Young people are on another wavelength.”

Originally, the museum, which opened in 2000, followed a more traditional line, with objects and panel explanations. “It wasn’t that useful to opening a discourse” on the stigma of mental illness, Dr. Martelli said. But it was set up by a group of psychiatrists rather than curators or museum experts.

On a recent day Chiara Preti, a high school teacher who grew up nearby, toured the refitted museum as part of a training course with other colleagues. She said she found the experience useful.

“The point the museum makes is that mental illness is a disease,” she said. “It doesn’t give a moral or a political judgment.”

She recalled that in her childhood, her father would give spare change to former patients who hung around the grounds even after the hospital had shut down.

“It was a part of the city,” she said. “And with the museum, it’s kind of nice having its history be part of your life.”