Monday, August 31, 2009

Massive Social Security backlogs mean millions of disabled people not receiving benefits they earned

From the Des Moines Register:

Todd Lindberg (pictured) has lived for a year and a half in a storage garage in northwest Des Moines. He sleeps on a well-worn couch in a dark corner of the building, amid construction equipment, tools and snowmobiles.

With most of one foot amputated and part of the other missing, he qualifies for federal disability benefits that would pay for an apartment and groceries.

But getting those benefits is not easy.

A massive backlog of unresolved disability claims at the Social Security Administration has kept Lindberg and millions of others waiting years for benefits they earned while in the work force. The delays have led to splintered families, foreclosed homes and suicides.

Last year, a 49-year-old Missouri truck driver died in the lobby of a Social Security office while waiting to be called into the office for a hearing on his three-year-old claim for benefits.

During the past year, the number of people waiting to have their claims processed has increased more than 30 percent, from 556,000 to more than 736,000. The head of the Social Security Administration, Michael Astrue, has acknowledged that the situation might soon get worse. The agency is "moving backwards" in its efforts to keep pace with a recession-driven influx of new claims, he said.

Nationally, applicants for benefits are waiting an average of 505 days to bring their cases before a Social Security judge for a hearing. In Iowa, the wait is slightly longer: 541 days.

Social Security's West Des Moines hearing office handles most of the cases from Iowa. Individual judges there have tried to catch up on their workload by hearing 70 to 80 cases each month, as opposed to their usual 50 to 60 cases.

"That's too many cases," said Denzel Busick, the office's chief administrative law judge. "We can do that for a while," he said, "but you wouldn't want us doing that on a sustained basis because, as a judge, you start to think, 'What am I forgetting here? What am I overlooking?'

"There are some judges who do these cases too fast, and they're not even giving the claimant the time of day. Well, all of these people deserve a fair hearing. You can't give short shrift to any of them."

Dan Allsup works with Allsup Inc., an lllinois company that helps disabled people pursue claims for benefits. "No matter how you look at it, this is a horrible situation," he said. "There has always been a backlog problem, but nowhere near the proportion of what we're experiencing today."

Until Lindberg's health began to fail in late 2006, he had what most people would call a good life. He worked steadily for 22 years and earned up to $50,000 annually.

But after being diagnosed with diabetes, Lindberg lost his job as a truck driver. His medical problems began to mount. Doctors had to amputate most of his left foot, then parts of his right foot. Now 40, Lindberg has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, blood infections and chronic digestive issues that have left him virtually unemployable.

Yet it took two and a half years for a judge to approve his application for federal disability benefits. And that was after U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin intervened to expedite his case - help that many disabled Americans don't get.

Last month, an administrative law judge who works for the Social Security Administration awarded Lindberg benefits of $1,189 monthly. He won't receive his first check for a few more weeks, which is why he still lives in his friend's storage garage.

"I showed the judge the pictures of my feet and all of my amputations," Lindberg said. "The judge said, 'I don't know why this wasn't approved before. We should have approved this back in 2008.' "

There are 7.4 million Americans who receive disability benefits. The average monthly check totals $1,063.

Not all applicants have to wait years for their first check. For some, particularly those with obvious physical disabilities, the wait can be as little as three months. Others never receive a check because they don't meet the federal definition of disabled.

Many applicants fall in the middle of those extremes: They are clearly handicapped, but there's some question as to whether they are truly unable to work for a living.

Answering that question can be difficult and time-consuming. Almost two-thirds of claims for benefits are denied at the outset. That can lead to a series of appeals that move through the system at a glacial pace.

Although applicants who go down that path often succeed in getting benefits, perseverance is the key: At some points in the appeal process, applicants must wait several months to advance to the next stage of having their case reviewed. For example, it may take 18 months to have one's claim reviewed by an administrative law judge, but judges approve 63 percent of those claims.

Ella Tilton of Columbus Junction spent almost five years fighting the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her benefits.

Fifty-five years ago, she was born without a right hand. More recently, arthritis crippled her left hand.

In August 2004, Ramona Schuenemeyer, then the acting regional commissioner of the Social Security Administration, wrote to Tilton to explain the agency's initial denial of benefits:

"You said that you are disabled because of a missing right hand and problems with the left arm, hand and shoulder due to overuse. ... Even though you do not have your right hand, you had good use of your left hand. You were able to stand and move about. You still had good use of your legs, arms and back."

That's not how U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt saw it, calling the evidence of Tilton's disability "overwhelming." He rejected the agency's finding that because Tilton was capable of some activities, she wasn't legally disabled.

"There is no provision in the law which requires her to vegetate in a dark room," Pratt wrote. "The evidence in this record is transparently one-sided."

He recently ordered the agency to begin paying Tilton the benefits she first claimed five years ago.

Jan Thelen of Wall Lake filed for benefits in June 2003 on the advice of her doctors. She suffered from constant migraines that led to vomiting, memory problems, blurred vision and recurring trips to the emergency room.

Over the next five years, the Social Security Administration denied Thelen's application for benefits five times. During those years, Thelen lost her health insurance and her house, racked up thousands of dollars in medical bills and underwent a divorce, which her husband attributed to her illness.

Four weeks ago, U.S. Senior District Judge Donald O'Brien ruled that the Social Security Administration had "relied on facts that were clearly erroneous" in denying Thelen benefits. He said the agency apparently "misunderstood the nature of migraines," diagnosed in Thelen by no fewer than 10 doctors.

O'Brien could have ordered the Social Security Administration to consider the case for a sixth time, but, he said, that would result in additional delays. He ordered the agency to immediately begin paying Thelen her benefits.

It will likely take another four or five weeks before Thelen receives the first installment of her past-due benefits.

"Had I been getting that assistance all along, I think things could have been manageable for me," Thelen said. "Having to wait six years has put me so deep into debt that I don't think things are salvageable. I can't even go to my local clinic because they won't see me until my past medical bills are paid. So now I go to the emergency room - which, of course, is even more expensive."

For some applicants, the process of pursuing a claim for benefits presents a Catch-22: The truly disabled are often ill-equipped to navigate the bureaucratic maze that leads to a finding of disability and benefits being awarded.

Some people who find themselves disabled and out of work see their lives spin quickly out of control. At the point where they become unable to generate income to pay for food and shelter, they're also hit with large medical bills.

Those who lose their home or apartment may become transient - living out of their cars while trying to track down, collect and submit the medical records that will help them collect disability benefits. Homelessness can lead to depression, which further erodes a person's ability to pursue a claim.

Four years ago, Kara Schroeder of Iowa City was living out of a van in California and picking up her mail at a homeless shelter. The Social Security Administration sent her a notice that she needed to be seen by a doctor to verify that she still was disabled. But the notice was mistakenly sent to an old address, and by the time Schroeder saw it, her benefits had been cut off.

Schroeder appealed the decision and explained the address mix-up. The agency agreed to reconsider the matter and told Schroeder to contact the agency within 10 days - but, again, the agency sent that information to the wrong address.

After moving to Iowa City, Schroeder visited her local Social Security office and asked Jana Laubenthal to help get her benefits reinstated. Laubenthal tried, but her colleagues in the Social Security Administration offices in California took two months to send her Schroeder's old case file.

Schroeder eventually enlisted the help of a Legal Aid attorney, who recently established that Schroeder was still disabled. But her problems in collecting benefits have continued. Earlier this month, some of her Social Security benefits were correctly routed to her bank in Iowa City, but others were sent to a bank account she closed years ago in California.

Three weeks ago, the agency sent her a letter telling her she could visit her local Social Security office for an explanation of her benefits, but the letter was mailed to the nonexistent city of "Iowa City, Mo."

Schroeder says the agency now wants her to repay benefits she collected while living in her friend's van - the theory being that the benefits should be reduced by the value of the free shelter she was offered.

"It never ends," Schroeder said. "There's this web of complications that you have to go through, and hurdles you have to clear, and it just never stops."

There is almost universal agreement about the cause of the disability backlog: Funding and staffing levels at the Social Security Administration have gradually dropped to their lowest levels since 1972, while the number of Americans applying for disability benefits has increased. Early this year, the number of unresolved cases was declining, but the economic crisis is making things worse: As the job market tightens, people with limited abilities have fewer job opportunities.

Federal officials now estimate they'll receive 3.3 million new disability claims this year. That's 300,000 more claims than last year and 13 percent more than was expected.

The Social Security Administration is hiring and training hundreds of additional judges and support staff, and it hopes to have the backlog under control by 2013.

Allsup, whose company helps disabled people pursue claims for benefits, thinks more can be done. For years, his company has lobbied the agency to provide applicants with a list of experts in disability law who, for a fee, help them navigate the process.

"People know they can go to the accountant down he street to get help with their taxes, but they're not aware that help is available when filing for disability benefits," Allsup said.

Professional assistance would expedite claims processing and reduce the Social Security Administration's overall workload by screening out claims that have no merit, he said.

To help address the backlog of cases in Iowa, the agency has transferred cases out of the West Des Moines hearing office to California and Utah, where the agency is not overwhelmed.

That has resulted in Iowa applicants arguing for benefits via closed-circuit video, explaining their disabilities to a judge who can see them only on a TV screen. Busick said the video hearings satisfy all constitutional requirements for due process, but are not ideal.

"In most cases, it's good enough," he said. "But in cases where pain is a factor, well, you're sitting there trying to determine, 'Is this person really experiencing pain?' And you can't tell that quite as well on the TV as when they're sitting right in front of you."

Nancy Hays, a Des Moines woman who works as an advocate for the disabled, says a judge conducting a video hearing sometimes can see only the person who is testifying, such as a medical expert.

"So the camera doesn't show my client, who can't bear to sit for more than 20 minutes. That means the judge can't see that he is standing up, hanging onto the back of a chair and grimacing."

Busick said that if all of the nation's administrative law judges processed 40 to 45 cases per month, the agency could chip away at the backlog. But the judges' productivity isn't easy to measure.

Astrue, head of the Social Security Administration, has said he believes some of the judges aren't pulling their weight. But the entire process through which the federal government processes claims for disability benefits is exempt from public oversight, with few exceptions.

Applications for benefits and the decisions of the Social Security Administration's administrative law judges are sealed from the public. Only the cases that are appealed to federal court are subject to any sort of public disclosure. As a result, it's not clear how diligent individual judges are in reviewing claims.

In April, a federal court rejected one administrative law judge's denial of benefits for a Fort Dodge woman, saying the judge had "shrugged off ... sidestepped or completely ignored" key elements of the woman's case and had rejected her testimony with "virtually no justification."

A few weeks later, the court found that a southern Iowa woman was unfairly denied benefits by an administrative law judge who ignored "overwhelming" evidence that the woman was "disabled by unrelenting pain." The court ordered the Social Security Administration to begin paying out benefits the woman had applied for almost six years earlier.

Thomas Krause, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in disability cases, says administrative law judges have a difficult job balancing the need to process cases quickly while giving each claimant a full, fair hearing.

"They do try, but they are pressed for time," he said. "And I think there's a lot more pressure on them now to hustle cases through the system than there was five years ago."

Busick defended his staff's efforts and expressed hope the backlog can be cleared - with sufficient personnel.

"The thing is that we do care," Busick said. "There are a lot of people in this agency working hard, and we're trying to move these cases forward with the resources that we have.

"It's not a hopeless situation. It's one where if we keep working at it, and if we can keep enough people in the agency, we can handle this. But if we backslide on it, well, then we're going to have problems."

Unemployed pushing disabled Ohioans out of jobs

From The Oxford Press in Ohio:

When Cheryl Callsen watches her 21-year-old son sit idle, she can see his frustration.
“Andrew’s (pictured) got a lot to offer and, like anyone else does, he gets bored sitting around all the time,” she said of her son who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, which is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. “He wants a job.”

But with so many people out of work, even entry-level jobs such as bagging groceries are hard to find. While nationally the unemployment rate is 9.4 percent, U.S. Census data puts that figure at more than 62 percent for those with disabilities.

“Honestly, the toughest question from my clients these days is, ‘When are you going to find me a job?’ ” said Melissa Engle of Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, who has been working with Andrew to find him a job through the agency’s employment services.

The challenge for agencies like Goodwill and the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities is to break through those employment barriers.

Mark Miller, contract services coordinator with DD, said the hope is once there has been a successful placement, more jobs will open up for their clients at that business.

“Once (people with disabilities) find their niche and are trained, they typically stick with those jobs for quite some time,” he said. “It’s win-win for everyone.”

“I mostly look forward to getting a job to see what I can do to help the community,” Andrew said.

Agencies fight a tough market, perceptions about developmentally disabled

More than anything, Andrew Callsen just wants a job. The 21-year-old Madison Twp. resident, just like any other kid fresh out of school, has spent the last several months learning different job skills and figuring out what he really wants to do in life.

The local job scene is grim, with the state reporting Butler County’s unemployment rate at 10.6 percent. But for Callsen, the challenges are even greater, and he faces a jobless rate 10 times that of most people, because of a developmental disability.

Callsen has Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. While people like him are eligible for a Social Security supplement, he would rather have something more valuable: employment.

“I want to have a job,” Callsen said, “because I want to pay back society for all of the stuff they have given me.”

In the almost 21 years that Mark Miller has worked with the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities helping people get jobs, “I have never seen it this bad.”

For the most part, the board and other agencies it works with, such as Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, have successfully placed people with disabilities in entry-level jobs. However, those positions are becoming fewer and farther between as the economy forces many to take any job they can get.

“A lot of those people who were laid off from high-paying jobs at GE and the automakers are taking a lot of those entry-level jobs right now,” Miller said. “We hope things turn around and these over-qualified people will go back to their jobs and open up more positions our clients are after,” he said.

The process for Callsen to find work started when he was in Madison Junior/Senior High School. His last two years there he and his instructional aide, Terri Brandenburg, went through a work study program. Jobs included cleaning the cafeteria, putting up decorations and making copies for teachers. It’s there Callsen learned that after school, he really wanted a job.

Through Goodwill, he has taken a vocational-interest assessment and learned horticulture may be a good fit.

“I can just be by myself and not be the center of attention,” Callsen said of a career choice that would involve working with plants. “I like watching things grow from seeds and change into something.”

After a one-week job assessment with First Pick, a produce stand in Springboro run by Goodwill, Daybreak and Blooms & Berries, Callsen’s mother, Cheryl, said it was wonderful to see the change in her son.

“He is so proud of himself, and when the paycheck came in the mail, oh my God,” she said while smiling proudly at Callsen. “It was a really good experience.”

The challenge ahead is actually finding a job, said Melissa Engle, an employee with Goodwill who is working with Callsen. Even in good times, it takes two to six months to find the right job with the right employer. The recession is affecting that time frame, she said.

“With the economy being so limited, it is more and more difficult for employers to make those accommodations when there are so many people looking for employment,” she said. “You just have to work a lot harder at it.”

Statistics have shown that people with disabilities perform at the same level or better than any other employee.

“They are not the typical person you might see receiving (federal assistance) — they give up that check in order to get earned income,” Miller said. “Many of them would rather become taxpayers than tax users.”

Play focuses on police shooting of black teen with autism

The NY Times review:

The recent arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Mass., and the subsequent debate about racial profiling inevitably come to mind as you watch “The Rant” by Andrew Case, on stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In the play, when the police are summoned to a home by a 911 call, the results are tragic: A black teenager with autism is fatally shot on his front porch; a white sergeant is accused of the killing.

The central event in “The Rant” (pictured) begins with a call from a woman, Denise Reeves, saying there is a domestic dispute in her apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. “He’s going to kill me,” she screams into the receiver.

First to respond are the sergeant, James Clarke, a tough 26-year veteran with 17 complaints on his record, and Officer Charles Simmons, his black rookie sidekick. They arrive to find a crouching figure, later identified as Benjamin Reeves, age 16, huddled on the porch. As his mother, Denise, calls to him from the apartment to come back in, a volley of bullets shatters the evening calm.

What was the sergeant thinking as he stepped from his car? Denise, played with heartbreaking maternal fervor by MaConnia Chesser, recalls the white officer as a monster, “afraid and angry both,” ready to kill a black youth at the slightest provocation. Officer Simmons (Mark Hairston, in a strongly etched performance) has a different take on the situation: “When you answer a call, you don’t have the luxury. Everyone you see has the potential to kill you.”

Both are interviewed independently by a civilian complaints investigator named Lila Mahnaz, a young woman with enough of her own baggage to sink a battleship. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, she was raised in New Bedford, Mass., feeling culturally at odds with her American schoolmates. She describes herself as deeply suspicious of those “neighbors who grew up to be cops and firemen.” As written by Mr. Case, himself a former investigator for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York, and played with unflagging intensity by Rahaleh Nassri, Lila Mahnaz is biased against the police at the outset.

The fourth angry voice in this cacophonous quartet is that of Alexander Stern, a reporter played by Bob Senkewicz. Desperate to land a Page 1 scoop, he badgers Lila to turn over her interview tapes, causing her identity to be leaked by a police newsletter called The N.Y.P.D. Rant. Later, in a chillingly delivered sardonic monologue, the reporter contrasts a black newspaper’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant with its treatment of the Duke lacrosse players who were similarly accused. He concludes, “We’ll never know the truth.”

Jesse Ontiveros’s fine direction of “The Rant,” which is part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program, almost keeps us from noticing Mr. Case’s overwriting of many scenes. But while the author’s passion is undeniable, giving “The Rant” its dramatic power, the piece never goes beyond the polemical. Characters are stereotyped, providing few surprises; nothing changes in the course of the drama. Come to think of it, sadly, maybe that is an accurate reflection of the real world.

State institution in Lubbock, Texas, faces rocky road to improving

The intro to a long feature in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:

The last people to see Michael Ray Nicholson alive recounted a brutal scene.

Nicholson, who family say had the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, was slammed on the bed, laid on and choked with a towel.

His face turned blue. Others watched, but did nothing.

Then, the man, just a teenager when he first came to the Lubbock State School, died.

Reports obtained by The Avalanche-Journal show school staff told state investigators about the June 6 altercation between employee Donnell Smith and 45-year-old Nicholson.

The death, recently ruled a homicide, occurred more than four years after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation uncovered the school's failure to prevent abuse and neglect of the severely mentally disabled residents in its care. Particularly troubling, the report noted, was the death of 17 residents in an 18-month period, several of which were identified as potentially preventable.

The Texas Legislature, concerned about safety through the entire state school system, has allowed the schools to hire more staff, and Lubbock's school is trying to fill more than 100 new positions.

Even before that, state and school officials say they improved how they care for their mentally disabled residents.

In 2006, the year after the Justice Department investigation, the number of abuse and neglect cases dropped.

But public records obtained by The Avalanche-Journal through the Texas Public Information Act show the number of cases in 2007 and 2008 dramatically increased.

The school has fired 73 employees in four years, but as of yet, none have faced criminal charges.

Criminal action is needed to stop the abuse and neglect, said Lilly Nicholson, Michael's mother.

"The state schools can only turn over the information of abuse and neglect to law enforcement and fire the people responsible, they can not do more than that," she said.

"If the people working there are aware that there will be consequences, they will not be as likely to assault, injure or neglect the ones they are hired to care for. It's a disgrace that this is allowed to continue with no accounting."

Kids on the autism spectrum take to the stage in California program

From the San Diego Union-Tribune. In the picture, Sandy Redmon instructed (from left) Stephanie Orozco, Sean Fogarty, Kristen Smith and Jason Mullins.

ENCINITAS, Calif. — It was Reid Moriarty's first time attending the Positive Action Community Theatre. The tousle-haired teen reluctantly followed his mother into the bare room with a wall of mirrors, where a dozen youngsters met last month to rehearse the play “Border Skirmish, Just Another Manic Day at Magic Manor.”

The Encinitas-based drama workshop, manned by parents and theater professionals, is called an inclusion program because it includes teens and youngsters who fall within the autism spectrum.

Students with autism and those without benefited in ways they never imagined.
At first, Reid, 15, ignored anyone who approached him and stated flatly, “I don't want to talk, Mom.”

A teacher welcomed him to the workshop and asked him to read the house rules.
“I'll let you do that,” Reid said.

In most circumstances, Reid's response might trigger snickering or surprise, but here, unorthodox behavior is taken in stride.

“It's a textbook answer,” said Reid's mother, Andrea Moriarty. “Reid takes everything literally and doesn't pick up on social cues. The thing that is great about this program is that there are typical peers, as well as five kids on the spectrum.

“When kids are high-functioning enough to mimic behavior, they need appropriate models, and that's what makes this program hugely valuable.”

Later that day, Reid invited another student to join him in an acting exercise, and when he was chosen to play a part, he read his lines with confidence.

Moriarty said reading a script gave her son specific directions on what to say, and that empowered him. He also had the support of the typical teens, who clapped enthusiastically after his accomplishments. The group will perform “Border Skirmish, Just Another Manic Day at Magic Manor” tomorrow at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraiser at San Dieguito Academy.

Parents of autistic children struggle to find social activities that will accommodate their kids. Recent state budget cuts have eliminated all social and recreational activities supported by 21 California Regional Centers, an organization that provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

“That will have a huge impact on our clients,” said Carlos Flores, executive director of San Diego Regional Center, which serves about 500 youngsters with developmental disabilities.

“People think social recreation is trivial, but social interaction is crucial. Many kids grow up in segregated programs; in many ways they are isolated from the things kids do. And socialization is not something a parent can teach a child. Those skills are learned through experience.”

The most recent statistics provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that autism is a common neurological disorder, affecting an estimated one in 150 children.

The term “spectrum” refers to the condition's wide range of abilities, symptoms and behaviors. A youngster can be nonverbal or a nonstop talker. He or she might be a good visual learner or avoid eye contact completely.

When Kathryn Campion and theater professional William Simonson co-founded the Positive Action Community Theatre last year, they didn't intend it to be an inclusion program.

Campion had a decade of nonprofit experience, and the plan was to launch a community theater project that served low-income children.

Then, a parent enrolled her 7-year-old autistic son, who performed well in a skit.
“It was so touching, and I thought, ‘There is something happening here and it's making a difference,’ ” Campion said. “The parent was so happy that she wasn't getting a door slammed in her face. Then she told a friend with an autistic child, and that person told a friend.”

Campion's theater program became a Kids Included Together affiliate. KIT is a San Diego-based nonprofit that supports recreational inclusion programs with on-site training.

After establishing a theater group for children of elementary school age, Campion began an eight-week teen program and solicited help from her daughter, Kristen, a senior at La Costa Canyon High School.

Kristen needed community-service hours for graduation, but she also discovered that she enjoyed herself and invited some of her friends to participate.

“I hadn't been with kids like that before,” Kristen said. “But they seemed more like me than I expected. It was nice interacting; they were sweet and fun to be with.”

Idaho man invents way to get wheelchairs onto rough terrain

From The Idaho Statesman:

Pat Dougherty's own life-altering accident led to a creative innovation that may help others. (He is pictured with his two children.)

The Boisean's FreeWheel attachment enables people who use wheelchairs to move safely and confidently in the outdoors.

Frustrated by the expense of sport wheelchairs, which can costs thousands of dollars, and by the instability of standard wheelchairs when moving over curbs, gravel and uneven surfaces, Dougherty came up with a solution.

"I had a hard time rolling in the backyard with my wheelchair," said Dougherty, who broke his neck during a 2003 motocross race.

Going uphill was slow and wheeling was hard on his shoulders. He found that even a half-inch bump on the terrain could throw him out of his chair.

He used his personal experiences and mechanical engineering skills to design the FreeWheel attachment and storage post.

"My idea was to make it practical. Given that I am a quadriplegic, it has to be easy and simple to use," he said.

The device is essentially a large wheel that clamps to the front of a chair at the foot rest and can spin 360 degrees.

Once the FreeWheel is in position, the two small casters on the standard chair are lifted off the ground, transforming a four-wheel chair into a three-wheeler.

When not in use, the device can be removed and placed on the back of the wheelchair.

With the new wheel, Dougherty moves confidently and safely over challenging terrain. The FreeWheel works well on the Greenbelt, over Downtown curbs and on sand and gravel, he said.

"You can easily get stuck way deeper in the woods now," he said.

Added benefits are that he is less fatigued and is not constantly looking down for obstacles. He now looks up and enjoys the outdoor scenery.

"It is absolutely amazing to get outside and enjoy the outdoors with family without being a burden to everyone else to get you around," Dougherty said.

During the winter, Dougherty skis using a sit-ski. He said because of the FreeWheel, he independently gets to and from his van to the ski lodge. He even pushes through the snow on his own.

The FreeWheel is manufactured in Boise and sells for $499. Dougherty hopes to someday mass-produce it, which would lower the price.

Dougherty is offering a FreeWheel demo to any of the women competing in the wheelchair portion of the St. Luke's Women's Fitness Celebration 5K race on Sept. 26.

"The FreeWheel opens up a huge amount of opportunities to access areas you just can't with a regular wheelchair," Dougherty said.

Canadian city bus service denies ousting boy with autism

From UPI:

DARTMOUTH, Nova Scotia -- A Canadian city transit authority in Nova Scotia denies allegations that a bus driver ordered a screaming autistic 8-year-old boy off the bus in Halifax.

David Croft told The (Halifax) Chronicle-Herald his autistic son Izaak began screaming on a bus as part of an outing with 15 other autistic children and 15 counselors Wednesday.

Croft alleges the bus driver ordered the boy off the bus.

"When the situation isn't right, his only outlet is this scream, which can be a pretty unnerving sound," he said.

Croft is demanding a written apology and a change in policy for the Metro Transit system in dealing with people with neurological disorders, the newspaper said.

Metro Transit spokeswoman Lori Patterson said there is an investigation under way, but denies the bus driver was in the wrong.

"Any time that there's a fairly significant disruption on the bus, (drivers) do have control over that. And if they determine that it's a safety problem for them driving the bus, then they say so and that's what he stated," she said. "He didn't actually tell them, 'You have to get off the bus.'"

The transit authority is reviewing security video from the bus, and Patterson said there would be no apology until the review determined if one was necessary.

Austin, Texas, doubles its fine to $500 for parking in disability-designated space

From the American-Statesman:

The minimum fine for parking in a handicap space without a permit placard, or with a placard “borrowed” from a qualifying person, will double Sept. 1 from $250 to $500.

Repeat offenders would see fines as high as $1,250, along with 50 hours community service, for the fourth violation, said Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant.

Elfant, who has represented Precinct 5 since 1993, has been part of lobbying efforts through the years that pushed the minimum fine to $50, then $100, then $250 and now $500. Still, Elfant said, people persist in parking in the spaces. His office will write about 1,500 such tickets this year, he said. At one point this spring, Elfant’s deputies in one day wrote 23 tickets in the area around the Capitol, many of them to people who when confronted admitted that the placard on their car was issued to someone else who was disabled.

“A couple of them said it’s just the cost of doing business,” Elfant said. “We’re hoping the $500 will change that dynamic.”

Elfant’s office, aside from having one of his deputies assigned full-time to enforcement of handicap parking, has 30 volunteers trained to give out tickets. But he said only deputies can confront someone to see if the placard belongs to them, leaving the volunteers to write tickets only for cars that park in a handicap slot with no placard.

India plans for accessible ATMs, TV

From the Economic Times in India:

NEW DELHI, India -- Electronic devices like ATM machines that have made our lives easier are likely to become accessible to disabled people too.

The information technology ministry has approved a draft on National Policy on Electronic Accessibility prepared by an NGO and will submit it to the central government for approval.

Javed Abidi of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) along with technology experts submitted the policy draft to the IT ministry. After making certain changes, the ministry has decided to forward it to the central government for an approval soon.

Aiming at "creating equal opportunities in the electronic age", the plan has been chalked out to make simple things like withdrawing money from an ATM machine or watching the TV by a blind person or accessing a kiosk at the railway station by the physically handicapped possible.

According to NCPEDP, India is home to 50-75 million disabled people.

One of the three salient features of the policy is that the hardware of all electronic products should be designed, developed and maintained in such a way that it can be used by all, including the disabled.

The policy also states that all public documents like periodicals and brochures and educational text must be made available in accessible format for the disabled such as the Braille format for the blind or audio through an automated conversion process.

Greater awareness on disability and more funds on research for development of technological aids which will help the disabled access all services is also highlighted in the policy.

It further suggests that a committee, which will look into the implementation of the policy and monitor it, should be formed within a month of its adoption.

Besides government agencies, private companies should also adopt the policy recommendations, it said.

North Carolina hiker took on Appalachian Trail, was first blind person to do it alone


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- People thought he was crazy. A blind man disappearing for months to hike one of the nation’s most grueling trails.

Imagine hiking 2000 miles through 14 states.

Trevor Thomas (pictured), 35, hiked for six months on the Appalachian Trail and he did it blind.

"I have a very odd eye disease. It’s called Atypical Central Serous Chorioretinopathy," Thomas said.

He’s only been blind for about five years. Doctors told him they didn’t know why he developed the condition or even what caused it. But he didn’t let it stop him from being active.

"I started and kept walking and kept walking and kept walking," Thomas said.

He began his hike April 6, 2008 and finished October 8 the same year. Every now and then, other hikers followed him.

"People would drop off,” Thomas said. “People would join. It was always different every single day.”

For the most part though, he did it alone.

"For about 400 miles it was just me hiking by myself hoping that I could stay on the trail," Thomas said.

He didn't always, but he did stick with it no matter the pain.

"I took a pretty nasty fall and I broke two bones in my left foot,” Thomas said. “I managed to take a tree limb in my head."

He even did what he calls backcountry surgery on himself. "I stitched my head together with super glue," Thomas said.

In Maine, winds threw him off the side of the mountain. "I landed about 15 feet down, but ended up breaking four of my ribs and cracking a hip," Thomas said.

He got up, hiked 40 miles to the nearest town, and found there wasn't a doctor.

“All the local townspeople sent me to the large animal veterinarian,” Thomas said. “And all they said was, ‘You have broken ribs. It's going to be very, very painful. We recommend you quit hiking’ and I said, ‘No I don't think so.’"

So, he kept going, hiking through Hurricane Kyle.

"Out of the five rivers I had to cross, I fell in four and almost drowned in every single one of them," Thomas said.

But he did it. He finished the trail and became the first blind person ever to do so alone.

"I will put this experience on the Appalachian Trail up there with anything I've ever done as probably the most rewarding experience I've ever had," Thomas said.

He proved his independence to himself and he's not done yet.

Thomas is currently planning a 2800 mile hike from Mexico all the way to Canada. He'll be the first blind person to even attempt it.

Paralympian gold-medal swimmer appointed head of London 2012 Paralympics

From The Telegraph in the UK:

Chris Holmes (pictured), a winner of nine Paralympic swimming gold medals, has been appointed as the Games' new director of paralympic integration.

It was in 1948 that Sir Ludwig Guttman, the founding father of the modern Paralympic Games, developed the concept at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, in 1948 for spinally injured servicemen using sport as a means of physical and mental rehabilitation.

Three years from Friday, the Paralympic movement returns to its spiritual home of England and Holmes, MBE, will head up all aspects of London 2012's planning and organisation.

Holmes, who lost his sight overnight aged 14, studied politics at Cambridge University and as an undergraduate, won a record six gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympic Games in 1992.

Holmes was a Paralympic swimmer of the highest order, but was also an outspoken rebel in his athletic career.

It was he who, poolside in Atlanta in 1996, revealed to The Daily Telegraph the dire conditions in the athletes' village at those Games where the British team felt they were being treated like second-class citizens. Athlete pressure led to the close alignment between the Olympic and Paralympic Games that exists today.

Holmes, MBE, has been a board member at UK Sport since 2005 and was a Commissioner on the board of the Disability Rights Commission from 2002-07. He is currently practicing at a leading City international law firm.

"Our aim is to put athletes at the heart of every aspect of planning for the Games," he said yesterday. "It's a unique, totally new role and one which I intend to pursue with no stone left unturned."

In the four years between the Athens and Beijing Games, public sector funding invested in Paralympic sports and athletes has risen from £29.5 million to £47 million, administered through UK Sport.

Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister, said: "The major ambition for London 2012 is that it will be as big an event for Paralympians as the Olympians. We want complete equivalence in the significance of both events. We are determined that London 2012 will help raise the profile of disability sport and leave a lasting legacy for disabled people around the UK."

It will also be the most compact Games ever. Around half of the 20 sports will be held in the Olympic Park and the majority of the remainder in the River Zone (North Greenwich Arena 1, Greenwich Park, ExCeL and the Royal Artillery Barracks).

Events outside these two zones include Paralympic Rowing (Eton Dorney, 25 miles west of London), Paralympic Sailing (Weymouth and Portland) and Paralympic Road Cycling, to take place in central London.

Operationally, London 2012 will be the most accessible Games ever for athletes and spectators. Train platforms are being widened, buses will be low-floored and have wheelchair access and all river piers will have ramps.

More than 8,250 London buses have been fitted with the new iBus system – an automatic radio and on bus passenger display announcement system which helps the visually impaired and hard of hearing.

There are also plans in place for summer camps throughout the UK in the next three years for teenagers with physical disabilities.

Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee, said: "In three years time we will be welcoming the Paralympic Games home and we will deliver a spectacular showcase for Paralympic sport. "However, we have greater ambitions. This is a golden opportunity to raise awareness of Paralympic sport, challenge stereotypes about disability and secure a legacy which would see every disabled child having access to sport.

"I have been completely blown away by the performances of Paralympic athletes who were doing things that so-called 'able-bodied' people could not hope to achieve."

Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, added: "Although it is still three years away, London has made clear efforts to move quickly down the path of preparation for 2012.

"The new infrastructure that is revitalizing the Lower Lea Valley as well as accessible sporting venues are just two examples of the tremendous legacy that will remain after the Games."

State in India adds specialized buses for children with muscular dystrophy

From The Hindu in India:

Two specially-designed buses will be operated to cater to the needs of children with muscular dystrophy in the recently-inaugurated model school in Chennai, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment D. Napoleon has said.

Speaking at the inaugural of the Vocational Training Centre for special children started by the Integrated Action Trust (INTACT) at Kariyamanickam near here on Thursday, Mr. Napoleon said the model school, first of its kind in the country, provided all facilities for children with special needs.

The special platforms in the two buses would help the children board them in their wheel-chairs.

One of the buses, donated by a philanthropist Selvam, was being re-designed. Transport Minister K.N. Nehru would sanction the second bus, he added.

Mr. Napoleon said he was fully aware of the problems of children with muscular dystrophy, as one of his sons was afflicted with it. Such children needed more comforts and special care.

He pointed out that not all parents would be able to afford facilities for such children. He appreciated the role played by the non-governmental organisations in supplementing the government’s efforts in this field.

Mr. Napolean appreciated the efforts taken by Director of INTACT Vocational Training Centre Thomas Ebinezer in imparting vocational skills to special children.

District Disabled Rehabilitation Officer R. Shyamala said the training centre had been constructed at a cost of Rs. 18 lakhs, including Rs. 5 lakh sanctioned by the Department of Rehabilitation of the Disabled. The centre would impart vocational skills to 30 children, including 15 girls.

Mr. Ebinezer urged Mr. Napolean to increase the pay scale for the teachers.

Chairperson of Mannachanallur Panchayat Union Sita Ilangovan was among those present.

ASL poet honored for being a deaf community trailblazer

From The Sun Post:

MANTECA, Calif. — Ella Mae Lentz (pictured) has only lived in Manteca a few months, but in addition to bringing furniture to fill a house purchased in May, she brought to town a driven soul.

Lentz, a leader in the deaf community, has fused English poetry with American Sign Language, co-authored eight books (four teachers’ guides and four student workbooks), helped found the Deafhood Foundation and champions its mission statement: “Dedicated to achieving economic and social justice for all deaf people.”

The group Purple Communications honored Lentz last weekend in San Ramon as one of 10 finalists for its Dream Bigger campaign, according to a news release. Purple Communications, based in Novato, is a provider of various interpreting services, and Dream Bigger “recognizes trailblazers in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.”

Lentz received $1,000 toward the charity of her choice — the Deafhood Foundation, in this case — and if she’s named trailblazer of the year in October in Washington, D.C., she’ll receive $10,000 toward a charity and a vacation. Online voting will determine the winner.

“Wow! Well, it’s a huge honor. There were 10 people all over the country, so it’s a very nice honor,” she said through an interpreter during a phone interview using Video Relay Service, in which a deaf person taps into an interpreter and carries on a video conference with the person on the other end of the phone. “But, more importantly for me, they’re giving me money to donate to the charity of my choice, and that’s thrilling for me, because I’m involved with a new organization, a foundation, so what I’m hoping is for people, when they vote, to get the $10,000.”

Lentz was born deaf, and others in her family are deaf as well. She said getting involved was a process. She noticed that deaf people don’t need help — they just depend more on vision.

“Deafhood reflects the true definition of being deaf, from deaf people’s side, from our real lives and life experiences to the world at large,” Lentz said. “People aren’t familiar with deaf people and sign language. … That’s tragic. That’s sad, but in our experience, we have our language, we have our lives, we have full access to the community and businesses and jobs. We have our families, we have our homes and everything.

“We do experience some oppression that we have to deal with and overcome, as any disability group does in the world. But Deafhood helps clarify some of those misunderstandings and those struggles.”

A child of the ’60s in the Bay Area, Lentz said she became “really fascinated” with English poetry in classes at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. She found herself further fascinated while taking classes in ASL, English poetry and translations at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

“I didn’t realize ASL was a language of its own,” Lentz said. “I started realizing I was bilingual. I realized I was not that bad at English. That was a new way of thinking for me.”

Lentz began working for a sign-language research laboratory and creating sign-language poetry.

“I felt poetry helped give credit to sign language,” she said. “People start to see it’s a real language. You can create with it, play with it, perform. It was a revolutionary way of thinking at the time.”

Lentz taught more than 30 years total, including ASL for 17 years at Berkeley City College. She noted that ASL has been around for several hundred years, but because of discrimination against deaf people — known as “audism” — children in particular “miss out.”

“Every human person has a right to a language that is in their natural mode, that’s most accessible to them,” she said. “Deaf children unfortunately are delayed in learning languages. Those kids are very isolated.”

As a co-founder of Deafhood, which is based in Newark, Lentz and the crew of 15 seek social and economic justice and political power for deaf people. She said four important points would help Deafhood reach its goal: Networking, education, activism and research.

While Lentz still spends much of her time in the South Bay “for work, meetings and the like,” her new hometown includes a daughter and three grandchildren.

“They like it,” Lentz said. “It’s still new to me, the town. It’s a very nice, sweet little town.”

In adoption case, Florida tries to argue gay people are more prone to suicide

From the Daily Business Review:

Frank Martin Gill took in two young boys on a temporary basis five years ago. Now, the North Miami, Fla., foster father said he would be "absolutely devastated" if the state removed his two foster children.

"Children need permanency, and I feel strongly they need permanency with our family," Gill told a horde of reporters, lawyers and spectators August 26 after his attorneys challenged the constitutionality of a 1977 state law banning adoptions by gay parents at a hearing before the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Gill, who is openly gay, attended the hour-long appellate argument about the future of his foster sons. He applied to adopt them in 2006. Miami-Dade Judge Cindy Lederman ruled for Gill last November when she found the law irrational. Whoever loses the appeal before the 3rd DCA is expected to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

The state defended the gay adoption ban in general terms without attacking the suitability of Gill's parenting in arguments before a three-judge panel and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people.

Citing the five-year foster relationship, Judge Vance Salter noted the state is espousing contradictory messages. The Department of Children and Families maintains having the half brothers, now 9 and 5, stay with Gill and his longtime partner would be best for the boys.

"The state doesn't contest that this is in the best interest of the children," Salter observed.

Deputy Solicitor General Timothy Osterhaus, who argued for DCF, said, "We do not."
But Osterhaus maintains gays as a group can be excluded based on higher rates of domestic violence, psychiatric disorders and breakups.

He argued the law is valid under a rational basis legal test, which Lederman rejected.

All of the problems cited by DCF are screened for in the adoption process, said Elliot Scherker, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder in Miami who represents the children, and American Civil Liberties Union attorney Leslie Cooper of New York. They noted the state makes daily determinations on fit parents.

"There's no reason for group bias," Scherker said.

Cooper disputed the state's statistical claims, saying there is no disparity in domestic violence between gay and heterosexual people. She also maintained the breakup rates for gay couples with children is "virtually identical" to heterosexual couples with children.

Scherker recited the list of state stipulations in the case: DCF agrees Gill would be a good parent. DCF agrees adoption by Gill would be in the best interest of the children. DCF allows gay parents to be legal guardians and foster parents.

"The father is a gay man. But that didn't concern the state when they placed [the children] in his care," he said.

Judge Gerald Cope Jr. said: "This is as far as I can tell the only absolute disqualification under the statute. How is that fair?"

He noted state law doesn't disqualify adoptive parents on the basis of criminal history, drug use or disabilities.

Judge Frank Shepherd asked if adoption exclusions would be permitted if any group exhibited higher rates of unacceptable traits.

Cooper responded those issues are screened out individuality and "group generalization makes no sense."

The state brought the boys, known in court papers as John and James Doe, to Gill in December 2004 when the boys were 4 years and 4 months old. Lederman concluded the older boy was the baby's primary caregiver when the state interceded and they clearly had been poorly taken care of.

"On that December evening, John and James left a world of chronic neglect, emotional impoverishment and deprivation to enter a new world, foreign to them, that was nurturing, safe, structured and stimulating," Lederman wrote in her Nov. 25 order declaring the state's gay adoption ban unconstitutional.

She found no rational, scientific or moral reason to uphold the ban.

"This court is satisfied that the issue is so far beyond dispute that it would be irrational to hold otherwise; the best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption," the judge wrote. "There is no question the blanket exclusion of gay applicants defeats Florida's goal of providing dependent children a permanent family through adoption."

The state appealed Lederman's ruling, claiming expert studies show gay people face adverse conditions such as higher suicide rates and their children will face discrimination and higher rates of sexual activity.

A number of groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides of the issue. The family law section of the Florida Bar filed a brief opposing the ban. The Florida Supreme Court refused to block the brief when a challenge was filed.

Florida adopted its gay adoption ban in 1977 when former Miss America contestant Anita Bryant was railing against gay rights. Miami-Dade County passed and then voters repealed an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation the same year.

The state has the nation's most restrictive ban on gay adoption. The Florida law has withstood several constitutional attacks at both the state and federal level. A number of other states allow single gay people to adopt children but not partners in a same-sex relationship.

A Monroe Circuit judge declared Florida's gay adoption ban unconstitutional last August, but the state did not appeal because DCF said it no longer had jurisdiction over the child.

The fight over gay adoption in Florida is set against a backdrop of expanding same-sex marriage and civil unions in other states. Florida had a law banning gay marriage when voters added the ban to the state constitution last November.

Orlando, Fla., attorney John Stemberger, who spearheaded the amendment, attended the arguments and acknowledged afterward that adoption by Gill would be best for the boys. But he contends the law is justified because children do better with a mother and a father.

"If you put these children up for adoption, I can find you 10 parents ready to adopt them like that," Stemberger told a hostile crowd outside the hearing room. No other parents came forward to adopt the boys before Gill applied.

During Stemberger's statements, a shouting match broke out among spectators. Someone hollered that Stemberger didn't care about what was best for the children.

Gill told the crowd that a lot of gay people make great parents, and he knows straight people who shouldn't raise children. He maintains parents should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

While awaiting a ruling, Gill said he's taking it day by day and trying to enjoy every day with his foster sons.

Osterhaus indicated DCF still wants the children to be adopted.

Following the hearing, ACLU co-counsel Robert Rosenwald of Miami said the state should not uproot the children.

"The state asked to tear them from the only home they have ever known," he said. "It's unconscionable that the state has taken that position."

LAX wheelchair attendants file complaint with U.S. Transportation Dept. saying they are not adequately trained to work with disabled passengers


LOS ANGELES -- LAX wheelchair attendants August 26 filed a complaint with the U.S. Transportation Department, claiming their employer, Aviation Safeguards, does not adequately train them for working with disabled passengers.

A group of 15 employees delivered a copy of the formal final filing August 26.

In the complaint filed with the Department of Transportation three employees argue that in their two to five years of employment with Aviation Safeguards, there's been a severe lack of training resulting in potential harm to both passengers and employees.

"These last training that we had we just talk about, you know, the Aviation history, but we didn't really touch any wheelchair in the training," said wheelchair attendant Fanny Fuentes.

One example pointed out Wednesday was an Aviation Safeguard employee pushing both the passenger and the baggage cart at the same time. Fanny Fuentes is one of the three complainants named in the filing, and she says that should never happen.

"It is unsafe because you are not actually holding the passenger with both of your hands. So you end up either losing the bags or losing the passenger," said Fuentes.
"Well it's a little more complicated than it initially sounds. It's really important that these people know how to do their jobs well," said Nickolas Sifuentes from the Los Angeles Alliance for New Economy.

The complaint also alleges that the company fails to maintain its wheelchairs. Employees reported some wheelchairs have cushions that have fallen off, leaving behind screws that stick up causing potential injury to passengers.

"There was one report of a wheelchair attendant who accidentally tipped a wheelchair forward and the passenger came out of the wheelchair and landed on the ground," said Sifuentes.

A representative for Aviation Safeguards who appeared to be caught off guard by the group would not comment, other than to say the filing is baseless.

"Our employees are of the highest trained in the airport and none of these comments are true so have a nice day," said the Aviation Safeguards representative.

Aviation Safeguards employs around 700 people at LAX and 200 of them specifically to assist passengers who are wheelchair bound.

Deaf ally asks for Facebook to caption videos

From Bill Creswell, who is working to caption video content on the Internet:

Captions for Facebook – Developer Request

I have added the request for caption capability on Facebook video. If you’re a Facebook developer, and want to add your vote:

Theme park in Britain asks wheelchair-using teen to prove he is disabled

From Leicester Mercury in the UK:

A teenage wheelchair-user was left angry and upset after staff at a theme park asked him to prove he was disabled.

Mohamad Hussain, 16, was challenged by staff at Alton Towers' guest care centre when he asked for a special wristband which would enable him to jump queues for the Staffordshire attraction's rides.

Mohamad has muscle-wasting Duchenne's muscular dystrophy.

He is unable to stand or perform tasks such as dressing or feeding himself.

His mum, Jamila, eventually managed to convince staff her son qualified for disabled access.

But the teenager then discovered that the extent of his disability meant there were few attractions he could access anyway.

Mohamad, from Highfields, Leicester, said he "could not believe it" when staff challenged him to prove he was disabled.

He said: "It made me feel very bad. We were asking for wristbands which they give out to people with difficulties so they don't have to queue for a long time."
He added: "I went to Disney World not long ago and it was amazing. We were treated really well.

"I think some theme parks are behind the times when it comes to caring for the disabled."

Mum Jamila, 43, said: "I didn't know what to say when the young man asked me to prove that Mohamad was disabled. He was in a wheelchair in front of him.

"Maybe if Mohamad wasn't in a wheelchair then I could understand. But I don't usually carry a doctor's letter because no one has ever asked him to prove it before."

Jamila said that despite having the wristband, her son was unable to enjoy many of the attractions because access required more mobility than Mohamad was capable of.
She said: "After going to all the trouble of getting the wristbands we couldn't get on any of the rides anyway.

"They said there was disabled access to all the amusements but he wasn't able to go on a single ride.

"We spent the day walking around looking at the rides and shops and then went home.
"It's really disappointing and more should be done to accommodate people with disabilities, especially at big theme parks like Alton Towers."

A spokeswoman for Alton Towers said: "We offer various attractions, for example our sea life aquarium Sharkbait Reef, a variety of animals to meet and greet in Old McDonald's Farmyard and numerous shows, which means guests have other options than just rides.

"In terms of us requesting proof of disability, this is company policy and for auditing purposes.

"In some circumstances we do not require proof of disability, however we need evidence of why a wristband has been authorised."

Disabled Canadian TV news producer killed in hit-and-run accident

From The Star in Toronto:

Nothing got in Dianne Trottier's way.

Not an opposing hockey team. And certainly not a broken elevator at her local Sobeys.

So when friends and colleagues heard the 33-year-old CBC producer (pictured) died after a hit-and-run driver in Fredericton struck her motorized wheelchair over the weekend, they were shaken and upset.

"Everyone is shocked and angry because of the way it happened," Esther Dzura said August 31. "It was senseless, really."

Trottier's colleague and CBC Radio producer Ing Wong-Ward agreed. "In terms of shock, the shock factor is huge. And what disturbs me and my husband is the person who did this ... knows what they did and they need to come forward ... for the sake of her friends, for her mother, because this is no way to die," she said.

Trottier, who lived in downtown Toronto, was in a crosswalk on Regent St. at the intersection with Beaverbrook St. when she was hit by a car late Saturday. She was initially taken to the Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton and later to the Saint John Regional Hospital, where she died Sunday evening.

Witnesses told police they saw a four-door, dark-grey car drive away from the scene.
Trottier, a Ryerson University journalism graduate, had worked at CTV before being hired at the CBC in 2003, first as writer and eventually a producer for CBC News: Around the World.

The "feisty" and "outgoing" journalist was vocal about accessibility rights and passionate about hockey. She played forward for the Pirates in the Toronto Power Wheel Chair Hockey League, where she was the second highest scorer this season.

"A lot of players looked up to Dianne," said Dzura, who is the league's president and Trottier's friend. "She would set them up to help (them) score the goals ... She just had a fantastic personality. She was just a funny person."

She was also a strong personality, said Wong-Ward, who attended Sunnyview Public School, a school for students with special physical or health needs, with Trottier.

One time, Wong-Ward recalled, the lift at the Sobeys in their St. Lawrence neighbourhood was broken. Trottier told her: "Don't worry. I've already called their head office. They're going to build a ramp next week."

Sure enough, Wong-Ward said, there was the ramp the following week. "That was Dianne: she was on it immediately. It was not acceptable to her. She had every right to shop in peace."

Japan unveils new generation of wheelchairs

From Impact Lab:

A group of Japanese researchers from the Veda International Robot Research and Development Centre have unveiled a vehicle they hope will become the next generation wheelchair for the country’s rapidly aging population.

Dubbed the Rodem (pictured), the vehicle is designed to allow users to easily slide off and onto its seat, thus making it easier for the elderly and injured to move around without the aid of a nurse.

The four-wheeled Rodem allows users to ride it like a scooter, rather than like a regular wheelchair. It is steered with a joystick and has motorcycle-style handles, with comfortable cushions to support the knees and chest.The inventors of the new design say that users are able to get on and off with ease, giving them greater independence from care-givers.“I believe this is a whole new idea for a wheelchair,” said Makoto Hashizume, head of the Veda International Robot Research and Development Center and a medical professor of Kyushu University.“With this vehicle, users can move around more freely and more actively without much help from other people.”The electric wheelchair will be the very first invention to be debuted by the Veda center, which opened in May in southwestern Munakata city. It is a collaborative effort with Japanese robot maker Tmsuk Co. along with researchers from ten different universities and institutes.The objective of the robotic and medical specialists, including those from Germany and Italy, is to design robots that could be useful in the health and nursing field. With their quickly aging population, Japan has proven to be the pioneer in this area so far.Though they say there are no immediate plans to make the new wheelchair available commercially, the inventors have said they are open to taking offers from private companies in Japan and overseas. The process would still take quite a bit of time, and they first have to meet government safety standards.The new wheelchair design could have even broader uses, according to Tmsuk president Yoichi Takamoto, who says it could be even be used by fully able people to ride for pleasure.The design is still too simple to be referred to as a robot, but Takamoto said that the Rodem may very well become one over time.“We can add more robot-like functions in future,” he said. “For example, we could add a new function so it comes to your bedside when you call.”The four-wheeled Rodem allows users to ride it like a scooter, rather than like a regular wheelchair. It is steered with a joystick and has motorcycle-style handles, with comfortable cushions to support the knees and chest.

The inventors of the new design say that users are able to get on and off with ease, giving them greater independence from care-givers.

“I believe this is a whole new idea for a wheelchair,” said Makoto Hashizume, head of the Veda International Robot Research and Development Center and a medical professor of Kyushu University.

“With this vehicle, users can move around more freely and more actively without much help from other people.”

The electric wheelchair will be the very first invention to be debuted by the Veda center, which opened in May in southwestern Munakata city. It is a collaborative effort with Japanese robot maker Tmsuk Co. along with researchers from ten different universities and institutes.

The objective of the robotic and medical specialists, including those from Germany and Italy, is to design robots that could be useful in the health and nursing field. With their quickly aging population, Japan has proven to be the pioneer in this area so far.

Though they say there are no immediate plans to make the new wheelchair available commercially, the inventors have said they are open to taking offers from private companies in Japan and overseas. The process would still take quite a bit of time, and they first have to meet government safety standards.

The new wheelchair design could have even broader uses, according to Tmsuk president Yoichi Takamoto, who says it could be even be used by fully able people to ride for pleasure.

The design is still too simple to be referred to as a robot, but Takamoto said that the Rodem may very well become one over time.

“We can add more robot-like functions in future,” he said. “For example, we could add a new function so it comes to your bedside when you call.”

Massachusetts tech firm to develop robotic prosthetic ankle

From Mass High Tech:

Cambridge-based iWalk Inc. has received $20 million of a $21 million Series B round to fund development of a self-contained robotic prosthetic ankle, the company has confirmed.

The funding comes from Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners and New York-based WFD Ventures LLC, according to regulatory documents posted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission August 28.

“IWalk is developing the world’s first robotic ankle for enabling amputees to walk faster with less effort on all terrain types,” said CTO Richard Casler. The company was founded in 2006 by MIT Media Lab professor Hugh Herr, a bilateral amputee himself.

The company has licensed technology from MIT, according to its website.

The latest round adds to a $3.7 million Series A, bringing the company’s total funding over $23.7 million. Casler said the company will invest the funds in new product development, hiring an engineering team.

Up-and-coming snowboarder talks about his dyslexia and his brother's Down syndrome

Erica Boeke's Q&A with snowboarding phenom, Kevin Pearce, in The Huffington Post:

EB: You split your time between living with your family in Vermont and your buddies in Carlsbad, California -- snowboarding and surfing. Which do you prefer?

KP: Snowboarding is my first love, but surfing is a great break. Carlsbad is a great getaway from snow and cold -- it's totally mellow. I was recently up in LA and wanted to kill myself ... I would say there were too many velvet ropes and parties for me. But I do love the west Coast, because it offers surfing and snowboarding.
EB: I know you started snowboarding in Mammoth, but what would you consider your home mountain?

KP: I don't really have one home mountain. I ski a lot in Colorado, Mammoth and Tahoe, but I love skiing all over the world: Japan, where there is an amazing amount of snow and powder; Norway; Switzerland; Austria; Colorado ... all over the world.

EB: Tell me about your family. You seem to be a very tight knit group. Your parents, your brothers ...
KP: My family is a huge part of my success. My parents had a very unique sense of raising us. Their motto was: "Do what you want, we trust you." I think this helped to shape me into the person I am. I'm the youngest of four -- two of my brothers and I have dyslexia, and my oldest brother David has Down Syndrome. The experience of dealing with these challenges with my brothers has taken me down a lot of different paths.

EB: Your dad is Simon Pearce, a renowned glassblower and designer. Tell me more about him ...
KP: My dad dropped out of high school and traveled around the world. He started creating pottery in Ireland and then opened a glassblowing shop there. A few years later, he moved to Vermont and opened a glass-blowing mill and a restaurant. It's cool. It's all hand made glass and pottery, plus everyday tableware.

EB INTERNAL MONOLOG: What other 21-year-old uses the phrase "everyday tableware"?

BACK TO KP: My oldest brother Andrew works there and David works there. It was a great place to grow up as a kid. We got to throw pots and make pots. Not many kids can say their dad's an artist, they can throw pottery and have a skateboard ramp in their barn!

EB: OK, please tell me more about this barn. What a cool place to grow up ...
KP: Yeah, it was. We had a barn in the back of our house and my parents turned it into a playhouse for all of us, with a skateboard ramp and everything. This is where we spent most of our time. Now, it's more of a snowboard museum, it's where we keep all of our trophies and posters. But I still hang out there with my brothers and our friends.

EB: You say "our" trophies. Isn't your brother David a well-regarded Special Olympian?
KP: Yep, David does it all: Bowling skiing, running ... He does great in all the sports. And he's so unhappy at second and third. He hates to lose ... just like me!

EB: How was it growing up with a brother with Down Syndrome?
KP: David's a very unique kid in that he's aware that he has down syndrome. So from a very young age, my parents put a twist my on it. We called it "Up Syndrome." It was their way of keeping it positive. Even when he was younger, if someone said "Down Syndrome," David would immediately correct you ... "Nope, Up Syndrome." Growing up with David has taught me patience. I can travel and see the world, and then spend time with David -- and it's so real. I can see how life is so difficult for him, but also see how he can have so much fun and give so much to people.

EB: Tell me about your group of friends, or should I say, "Frends" because there's no "I" in "Frends" ...
KP: This is a group that came about really naturally and organically. My friends and I all had obligations to all of our sponsors, but we wanted something to bring us together in a team forum. Snowboarding is such an individual sport, this is the great way to add our support together - and have each other's backs. Now our group has gained recognition ... We want to show people that we're a tight knit group of friends and expand on it and show how cool it can be. That no matter how big you get, you still have your friends. There's even a TV show in the works, where they'll show our lifestyle and how lucky we are to do what we do on the road to Vancouver.

EB: So speaking of which, how excited are you to try to qualify for the Olympics?
KP: So excited. I'm trying to qualify for the Men's Halfpipe. The last time it came around I wasn't in the running for it. Now I really have a great chance. I'm putting as much energy I can to making the most out of it. It's a great opportunity for me. I'm really hoping that it works out.

EB: You are known for exhibiting great patience and your nickname is "Marathon Man." How do you think this will serve you as you look towards Vancouver?
KP: Patience is huge for me -- and it will be huge going into this year. I'm going to do my best to be patient with everything, take things one step at a time, and give it my all when I get the chance.

EB: So what do you think of Shaun White?
KP: I've known Shaun for a long time -- I'm going to the US Open with him. He has always been there at the top of the sport, and I've been there learning from him and riding with him. He has really done amazing things for the sport. I really hope, though, that we can all become the face of snowboarding. In our crew of "Frends," it's not just one or two, it's all of us. At any of these contests, any of us could win. We've had some really good training sessions, we have some new tricks coming up.

EB: Anything you can tell us about?
KP: There will be some cool new stuff, but we're trying to keep things quiet for now.

EB: Fine, Kevin. This interview is over. No really, it is over. I don't have any more questions.
KP: Cool.

As you know, I typically reach out to the Twittosphere if they have any questions for these athletes. Visit for the full Kevin Pearce interview, and check back this fall for our upcoming interview with Kevin on the podcast series GameOn. You can also follow Kevin Pearce on twitter at:

Surveillance video shows last moments of murdered Florida couple, who had adopted numerous disabled children

From The AP:

PENSACOLA, Fla. — A Florida couple known for adopting special needs children struggled with armed intruders in the minutes before they were gunned down, with the wife apparently trying to protect one of the children, surveillance video shows.

The video viewed Thursday by reporters shows Byrd Billings first put his arms in the air, then grapple with armed men who entered the family's living room July 9. His wife, Melanie, is seen protectively grabbing what appears to be a child on the shadowy, time-lapsed video taken by the home's surveillance system.

The two were shot dead in their bedroom, where there were no surveillance cameras, before the intruders left with a safe. Photos taken by investigators that show the couple's bodies in their bedroom were also viewed by reporters Thursday.

The viewing took place at the prosecutor's office under a compromise reached by the media and survivors of the Billings, who adopted 13 special needs children and had two biological children each. A judge allowed the media to view but not copy or distribute security video taken from the home. Investigators didn't answer questions about the photographs and video.

Six men and a 16-year-old have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the slayings. A woman has pleaded not guilty as an accessory to the crime.

Footage from the 16 security cameras shows the intruders pulling up to the sprawling west Escambia home in two vehicles just after 7:05 p.m. Less than a minute later, a camera in the couple's living room shows Melanie Billings enter from the kitchen following a dog and what appears to be a child.

Byrd Billings, wearing only boxer shorts, comes in next with his arms in the air in surrender as two men, dressed in black with their faces covered, point long guns at him. A third man dressed in street clothes then points a handgun at his head.

Melanie Billings appears to grab the child protectively. Byrd Billings falls to the floor, then appears to get up and struggle with the intruders. Melanie Billings goes to Byrd's side.

The videos don't show what happens next, but authorities say the couple were killed in their bedroom. Grisly crime scene photos show the husband's body face down on the ground at the foot of the bed, with his wife lying face-up on the other side of the bed. Both are surrounded by pools of blood.

According to autopsy reports, Melanie Billings, 43, was shot twice in her chest, and in the face and head. Byrd Billings, 66, was shot multiple times in the head and legs.

The crime scene photos document dozens of bullet holes throughout the living room and bedroom and show a trail of blood along the living room floor.

Nine of the couple's children, all between the ages of 4 and 11, were in the home the night their parents were killed. All of the children having varying special needs ranging from Down's syndrome to fetal alcohol syndrome and autism.

Footage from the children's bedrooms shows two of them remaining still during the break-in.

A third one is in her bedroom alone when the attackers arrive, and their van can be seen through her window. The girl walks to the window and appears to watch the men enter. The girl then gets back in the bed and pulls the covers around her. She gets up a second time before returning to bed and putting her head on the pillow as the tape ends.

Previously released records of interviews by sheriff's investigators show that one child told investigators that he heard a knock on the door and that "two bad men" said, "You're going to die, one, two, three" and then, "no way, no way."

The records show that child was asleep in his parents' bed when they were killed.

Investigators have said Pensacola-area karate instructor Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 35, was the ringleader of the attack. They say his father, Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Sr., drove the getaway car. Besides the Gonzalezes, also charged are Wayne Coldiron, 41; Donnie Ray Stallworth, 28; Gary Lamont Sumner Jr., 30; Frederick Lee Thornton Jr., 19; and Rakeem Florence, 16.

Surveillance cameras on the outside of the home captured suspects in two vehicles wearing ninja garb and black masks entering the couple's sprawling house.

Investigators say a safe with items of little value was taken from the family's home. The robbers missed a second safe that held $164,000 in cash, a lawyer for the victims' family has said.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Police arrest foster parents in case of missing California boy with CP

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

FREMONT, Calif. -- The foster parents who tearfully pleaded for the public's help in finding their missing 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy were arrested August 28 on suspicion of killing the boy, authorities said.

Louis Ross, 38, and his fiancee, Jennifer Campbell, 33, the boy's aunt, were taken into custody on suspicion of murder, said Officer Jeff Thomason, an Oakland police spokesman.

The boy, Hasanni Campbell (pictured), was reported missing Aug. 10 after Ross said he vanished at the rear door of a Rockridge neighborhood shoe store in Oakland where Campbell worked. His body has not been found.

Oakland homicide investigators were questioning the couple Friday night and conducted a search of the couple's Fremont home in Hampton Place, a tidy community of two-story stucco homes with wide streets and rose bushes.

Campbell was arrested at the Union City BART Station shortly before 2 p.m. after being questioned earlier by police, Thomason said. Ross was arrested at the Fremont home about an hour later.

"This is not a missing persons case anymore, this is a homicide investigation," Thomason said. "And we are talking to the people responsible." The officer said the investigation was "very complex."

John Burris, an attorney who has been consulting with the couple, said he was told of the couple's arrest on Friday afternoon.

"I'm not aware of what evidence, if any, that police have that supports the detainment or the arrest," Burris said. "I know that they have been questioned extensively by the police over the last several days."

Absent a body, Burris said the arrests were probably a police tactic designed to pressure the couple to talk and turn on each other.

"That's how police work," Burris said. "Divide and conquer."

Prosecutors will have 48 hours from the arrests, not including the weekend, to decide on charging the couple.

Investigators had long focused their attention on the foster parents, scouring their Fremont home with dogs two days after Hasanni vanished and questioning Ross and Campbell. Ross also was given a polygraph examination; Campbell, who is more than six months pregnant, declined to take one, saying she feared it might harm her fetus.

Police had said the dogs were unable to detect Hasanni's scent outside the shoe store where Ross said he last saw the boy. Hasanni wears arch-support braces because of his cerebral palsy, but he can walk on his own, Ross said.

Court documents also showed Ross sent Campbell an angry text message 10 days before Hasanni vanished, threatening to leave the boy alone on a BART platform. Ross has described the message as part of a dispute with his fiancee that quickly passed.

Throughout the investigation, the couple said they were cooperating as they continued to ask for the public's help in finding Hasanni. Police offered a $10,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.

"If you have him, let him go!" Ross pleaded at an Aug. 17 event outside the shoe store, when both foster parents wore shirts bearing pictures of the missing child. "This is our son!"

Friends and family members had defended the couple against police scrutiny, with Campbell's mother, Pamela Clark, saying in an interview with The Chronicle a few days after the disappearance that Ross was a professional man and a good provider.

"I don't think the family's involved at all," she said.

Friday afternoon, yellow crime scene tape blocked the street about a half block from the family's home, and Oakland police officers were seen going in and out of the backyard while Fremont police stood guard. A light could be seen on in the second story window, but it did not appear that anybody was at home. The search of the home wound down about 7 p.m.

Neighbors were shocked to see police cars and news helicopters descend on Hampton Place, a neighborhood they regard as free of crime.

"It's surprising for this neighborhood. There's not much crime here. We have had some break-ins, but nothing really serious," said one neighbor, Anton Ko. "It makes you feel afraid."

Entrances to the neighborhood were temporarily blocked by police, who were allowing only residents to enter.

"We're all talking about it, me and my friends, on Facebook," said one 15-year-old neighbor, Arvind Mahesh, who said he heard the helicopters arrive about 3 p.m. and rode his bicycle to watch the police search the home that Ross and Campbell share on Roxie Terrace.

Neighbors who had been following the story said they were dismayed at the latest twist in the case.

"All along, we heard the foster parents were upset about being interviewed, and asked a lot of questions. Now today, we found out they got arrested," said Alok Verma, who lives about a block and a half away from the family's home. "It's shocking."

Texas disability advocates say Regional Transportation Authority board needs more diversity, like its bus riders

From the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas:

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — If you were unemployed, without a car, and looking for a job cleaning office buildings at night, could you rely on a Regional Transportation Authority bus to get you to and from work?

Or if you were disabled, would every bus stop in Corpus Christi be accessible to your wheelchair?

The answer to both questions is no, according to current and former members of the authority’s board of directors. Some of those board members say there is at least a partial explanation.

Many of the RTA’s riders are poor, disabled, elderly or any combination of the three. Those characteristics do not describe the board of directors that governs the transportation authority.

“We don’t have anybody on the board who uses the bus,” said Judy Telge, a board member.

Telge and former board member Abel Alonzo (pictured), a wheelchair user, say that if the board had more diversity, it might offer different types of service to meet the needs of those who need the bus most.

Some board members say many options for expanded service are dependent on new funds.

Telge points out that most of the fixed line routes go through the city’s Westside, which has a large population of bus users. But service stops in the evening, meaning some workers in lower-wage jobs, in restaurants, as security guards, as office cleaners, might not have access to transportation.

“I don’t think that at any point in its 25 years the RTA board has reflected its ridership,” said John Longoria, a member of the RTA board and CCISD trustee. “But it reflects the majority of the community.”

He said many of the decisions the board makes are constrained by funding.

“It’s a factor of dollars,” Longoria said. “It’s geared toward the bulk of ridership. There’s no governmental entity that can commit to every demand.”

The transportation authority estimates 74 percent of its riders don’t own a vehicle and 41 percent of riders use the service to get to work.

Of the 11 RTA board members, the city appoints five, one of whom represents the interests of the transportation-disadvantaged. The rules, however, don’t say the representative must actually be poor or disabled.

Telge fills that role because, as founder of the Coastal Bend Center for Independent Living, she has a professional history of advocating for people with disabilities. She said the RTA has made giant strides in serving disabled riders. But she said the board only began paying significant attention to those issues when her predecessor, Crystal Lyons, joined the board in 2004. Lyons has a son who uses a wheelchair and is now chairwoman of the board. When she joined, she was appointed to advocate for the transportation-disadvantaged.

All buses in the RTA’s fleet can accommodate people with disabilities. But not all stops can do so. The result is that some people with disabilities rely on the more-expensive para-transit service because they cannot get to a bus stop.

Telge credits Lyons with being the first to address this problem.

Lyons said that in some cases, that isn’t the RTA’s fault that patrons can’t get to the bus. It’s the city’s fault.

The RTA formed a plan to coordinate access issues with city officials. The organization is using half of its $6.3 million in federal economic stimulus money to pay for that plan. The organization also will spend about $3 million more from another federal source.

Alonzo says having one appointee represent the interests of the transportation-disadvantaged isn’t enough. He has lobbied state lawmakers to change the law so that as many as three people come from that category.

Appointees have tended to be politically connected. When Democrats controlled the Nueces County Commissioners Court, the county’s three appointees tended to have some connection to U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi. Now that Republicans have a majority, two of three appointees are GOP activists.

Alonzo said he had hoped with the transition in Nueces County, commissioners would appoint people with an interest in public transportation. But, he said, those board spots are part of the spoils of victory, and he can’t blame Republicans for doing what Democrats did for two decades.

Lyons said she values the board members because they are active in the community.

“Diversity is fine, but you have to have people who will represent and be active,” Lyons said. “They need to be effective. Sometimes a mother of a person with a disability might be better than a person with a disability.”