Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fighting, and for Disability Benefits, Too

In an L.A. Times story today, many soldiers are fighting another battle -- trying to collect disability benefits after being injured on tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to the story:

In a little-noticed regulation change in March, the military's definition of combat-related disabilities was narrowed, costing some injured veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits -- and triggering outrage from veterans' advocacy groups. The Pentagon said the change was consistent with Congress' intent when it passed a "wounded warrior" law in January. Narrowing the combat-related definition was necessary to preserve the "special distinction for those who incur disabilities while participating in the risk of combat, in contrast with those injured otherwise," William J. Carr, deputy undersecretary of Defense, wrote in a letter to the 1.3-million-member Disabled American Veterans. The group, which has called the policy revision a "shocking level of disrespect for those who stood in harm's way," is lobbying to have the change rescinded.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Kurzweil: The Grandfather of Assistive Tech

Ray Kurzweil is a scientist and inventor of groundbreaking assistive technology, including a text-to-speech synthesizer, voice recognition software, and a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. Known as the grandfather of assistive technology, Kurzweil is highly regarded in disability circles as well as the broader technology sphere. He placed 14th on's Agenda Setters list for 2008, mainly for his current work surrounding artificial intelligence and robotics. posted's Q&A with Kurzweil, where he discussed his vision of the future and AI. I find Kurzweil's research and philosophies fascinating. Not only has he improved the lives of people with disabilities with assistive tech, he has been on a mission for the last decade to make bionics and AI a cornerstone of human existence -- and help us live better, smarter, longer lives. Some key points from his interview:

On the law of accelerating returns: "What used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, what fits in your pocket now will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years."

On the most exciting technologies in recent years: "Health and medicine ... We have software that's running in our bodies that's thousands of years old or more and it evolved when conditions were very different, such as the fat insulin receptor gene. And what would happen if we turned that gene off? There are other genes that are necessary for heart disease or cancer to progress that we'd like to turn off."

On the limits of computer intelligence: "In order for a computer or any entity to pass the Turing Test it has to master human emotion ... Getting the joke, being funny, expressing a loving sentiment -- these are actually the most complicated things we do, the cutting edge of human intelligence." [Editor's note: This statement speaks volumes for austism and other disorders, in which such emotions are seemingly impossible to convey yet have no direct relevance on intelligence.]

On whether super intelligent machines will have a soul: "The soul is a synonym for consciousness ... It's not going to be a clear distinction of where humans or biological intelligence stops and machine intelligence starts ... You won't be able to walk into a room and say, 'OK, humans on the left, machines on the right,' because it's going to be all mixed up ... we will attribute consciousness to entities even if they have no biology."

On man vs. machine: "Ultimately non-biological intelligence will be much more powerful than biological human intelligence, but it's not an invasion of intelligent machines from Mars -- it's coming from our own civilization. And we will use it as we do today to expand our own reach--we will make ourselves smarter."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Innovative Ideas from the Disability Forum

What do a professional skier, a Hollywood consultant and a business blogger have in common? A disability, of course. On Tuesday I attended the Disability Innovation Forum in Washington, and met a great group of people who are leading the conversation on hiring and marketing to people with disabilities. The keynote speaker was Bonnie St. John, an African-American leg amputee who became a Paralympic medalist in downhill skiing in 1984. Using comedy and an authenic voice, Bonnie broke down the sterotypes surrounding disability and made everyone in the room feel comfortable. The forum was organized by Working Mother Media's Diversity Best Practices division, with the help of Jonathan Kaufman of DisabilityWorks. An education and policy extraordinaire, Jonathan told me he's about to begin creating a ph.D program in Disability Studies at Columbia University's medical school. He also consults with Hollywood on movies that feature disabled characters. Some lively afternoon panels included executives from Wal-Mart, Verizon and Harrah's Entertainment, who offered their perspectives on hiring the disabled to shore up a worker shortage and build a more representative workplace culture. Jennifer Croft at the U.S. Dept. of Commerce emphasized the Clinton-era Executive Order 13173, which President-elect Obama will reinstate, that will require federal goverment to hire 100,000 workers with disabilities in the next five years. A very successful day, indeed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Extreme Makeover's Disability Message

Last night I watched the latest episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where Ty Pennington and his crew helped two St. Louis-area families, the Martirizes and the Maleks, who are struggling to live life with major disabilities. Emmanual and Dawn Martirez's home was refurbished to make it accessible to their twin boys, Evan and Alec, who have rare neurological diseases that cause extreme physical and cognitive disabilities. And Egyptian-born Sam Malek, who has cerebal palsy, owns a small coffee shop that was demoed and rebuilt to make it accessible to him and his employees with disabilities. In doing so, ABC makes a strong statement for supporting small-business and equal-employment opportunities for the disabled. Since its start in 2003, Extreme Makeover has touched the lives of dozens of people with disabilities by renovating their inaccessible or otherwise unlivable homes for free. Each project, which takes seven days, results in significant structural and design improvements to every room in the house, often bringing tears or joy to those who have lived with the difficulty of navigating through the place they call home. With more than 13 million U.S. viewers, the program gives a high profile to disability issues and inspires Americans to give back to their communities. Equally important is the primetime face-time for vendors that donate the funds to make these homes a reality. For example, Sears provides home appliances, CVS provides medical supplies and scholarships to families and Ford Motor occassionally donates vehicles. Southwest Airlines donates airfare for the families’ vacations, which include trips to Disneyworld, donated by Disney. Hilton and Marriott donate accommodations. These initiatives send a powerful message that companies are serious about reaching the disabled market, which holds a collective $300 billion in discretionary income. Families who want to be considered for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can submit a video, complete an application, and mail both to the show's producers. They can also ask a non-profit organization, church or neighborhood association to submit an application on their behalf.

Friday, November 7, 2008

New Disability Career Sites

Up until recently, job seekers with disabilities have had to reverse-engineer their job search. First, they sought out disability-friendly companies, such as those lauded by DiversityInc. and Careers & the Disabled magazines. Then they set about seeking open positions within those companies. Some disability-career sites are trying to make the job search easier. The newest,, launched on Nov. 12. The site’s resume-builder tool is one of the smartest on the web, and the site has signed on a half-dozen corporations including CIGNA and Pep Boys. GettingHired also hosts a series of videos to prepare a job seeker for potential interviews; the videos are fully accessible and can be viewed with full voiceover and captioning. Another valuable job board for people with disabilities is Disaboom. Launched in late 2007, Disaboom’s job board has gotten more robust and claims to have more than 500,000 job listings. Job listings include those for temporary-staffing agencies, which can be a good way to get your foot in the door. Big-name job board has also gotten into the disability-hiring game. It recently hosted a virtual career fair for job hunters with disabilities. Its job listings include those from Spherion, MetLife, H-P, and Schering. One site that’s geared towards more entry-level job seekers is HirePotential, whose small job board includes listings from IBM and Microsoft. The less-experienced set may want to try the disabled alumni network at LimeConnect, an organization that recruits disabled college graduates. While most of the site’s job listings are culled from the web, an icon next to the job post alerts the member that someone in the LimeConnect network has a connection to the company. LimeConnect also features jobs from companies that are dedicated to hiring the disabled, such as Google, Credit Suisse, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Verizon Telecom.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Gives Disabled a Voice in Victory Speech

Americans with disabilities were given a voice last night with President-elect Obama's victory speech in Chicago. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled -- Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America." By including the disabled as a specific group, Obama has sent a message that he will put disability issues on the map. No other president of our time has done this before, not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president, who struggled with an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In order to win the re-election, FDR believed he had to convince Americans that he was getting better; he wore iron braces and leaned on his sons or aides in public, but used a wheelchair in private. Today is a new day for Americans with disabilities, and the opportunities are vast. Take employment: Of the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, only 38% are employed, vs. 78% of those without disabilities, which I wrote in a Wall Street Journal article. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who are returning home with severed limbs and brain injuries need rehabilitation. Children who are being diagnosed with special needs require a strengthened education plan. An aging population that can benefit from new technologies such as hearing aids needs better healthcare options. Obama has made it clear throughout his campaign that his vision for America includes the needs of the disabled, the nation's largest minority group. His task in 2009 will be to listen to these issues and find comprehensive solutions that help all Americans -- disabled or not disabled. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A (High-Tech) Room of One's Own

Someday soon, older adults may not need to move into nursing homes because they'll have a household of technological wonders to keep an eye on them when they become frail. That's what this Dallas Morning News article says, after taking a look at what the University of Texas is doing to keep seniors more independent for longer. UT's Human-Centered Computing Laboratory houses a make-believe one-bedroom apartment equipped with high-tech cameras, motion sensors and robots, and surrounded by computer stations. Robots scoot from room to room to wake the homeowners in the morning, remind them to eat and send for help if someone falls. Sensors embedded throughout home detect when the resident has a sleepless nights or forgets to take his medication. Web-based computer software will notify family members and caregivers. The UT lab will be "the springboard for what experts predict will be an exploding assistive technology industry within a decade," according to the article. No doubt, UT lab's technology can be modified to help people with disabilities, too -- especially those who are unable to care for themselves but wish to live on their own. These are the kinds of stories I love to read, because they position assistive technology as cool, helpful and synonymous with independence.