at The David L. Lawrence Convention Center

Exhibit: "Fullest Potential: Pittsburgh’s Role in Changing the Lives of People with Disabilities"
May 25, 2009

Pittsburgh’s innovations in health care, education and medical technology make it a leader in providing services and assistive devices to people with disabilities. Dollar Bank is proud to present Fullest Potential: Pittsburgh’s Role in Changing the Lives of People with Disabilities, which features five local organizations dedicated to helping special needs individuals.

Dollar Bank would like to thank all those who participated in this video.

Full written transcript of this video provided below.


Hello. I’m Jennifer Lowe. I’m the Executive Director of SHOUT. The acronym SHOUT stands for Sharing Helps Others Use Technology.

I’m communicating by a sophisticated communication device that’s called a Delta Talker. How it’s operated is by a light sensor that is attached to my glasses. The light sensor has a cord which connects it to the device. Infrared lights are on the face of my Delta Talker. When I hesitate on a light for a split second. It activates that particular key.

One of the things that the Minspeak system can do for a person who is unable to use oral speech or hand signs, traditional hand signs, is to facilitate the rapid communication of natural language in real time. It gives about a 65 percent break over spelling in terms of the number of keystrokes.

Before augmentative communication with the voice it was rather frustrating because I couldn’t get someone’s attention and I couldn’t say really what I wanted and how I wanted. I earned a Bachelor’s degree from Edinboro University in Specialized Studies. I do a lot of public speaking promoting SHOUT. I have been in Sweden, England, and Singapore, and Duseldorf, Germany. I have spoken to little children, which was absolutely great. I love to teach children about my disability and encourage them to ask questions. “Does it hurt?” And I’m real with them. I answer, yes, sometimes. I give the example of people staring. That hurts. I am not a thing. I’m a person.

Augmented communicators want to work. They feel that the productivity that they provide to society just like any one of us. At the Pittsburgh Employment Conference, they know they’re the most important people at the conference, and the microphone is always given to the augmented communicator first. I think one of the main reasons why the people are so happy, the people who use augmented communication, and they feel like they can say whatever they want, and they’ll be heard.

The goal of the Pittsburgh Employment Conference for augmented communicators is to allow augmented communicators from all over the world to gather together to discuss their issues. It’s a wonderful coming together, all on the level.

HERL does a variety of research, but the main focus of our research is on technology to improve the mobility and function of individuals with severe disabilities. We have a large focus or a large emphasis on wheelchair research.

One of the remarkable things about HERL I think is that we actually can to from conceptualizing design to doing prototypes, to focus groups, making actual multiple units, all the way to clinical demonstrations locally and even multi-site clinical trials here across the country.

One of the goals at our virtual reality lab is to help individuals with complex disabilities, help them fulfill their full potential.

We believe that a lot of improvements in clinical practice and in also the design and fitting of new technologies will occur in a virtual environment.

And in here we’re looking at interface devices for individuals with complex disabilities, such as multiple sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and traumatic brain injuries, as well as cerebral palsy, where devices don’t necessarily exist to meet many people’s needs or to help them fulfill their full potential.

So to give you an idea of what life was like in 1980 when I was first injured, was that I had an 80-pound wheelchair, and I was a 125-pound person. Now, wheelchairs weigh 18, 19 pounds.

Some of the issues that HERL later tackled, like repetitive strain injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries and also shock and vibration exposure and low back pain, those things people experienced at the time and many people had very limited mobility and would actually become homebound because of those. But the connection had not been made that the wheelchair might be part of the problem.

A lot of people probably overlook the impact that wheelchair sports, especially wheelchair road racing, had on people with disabilities.

Changing perceptions. I like to say that my first 10K in a wheelchair, it took me over 50 minutes to do the 10K. When I retired from racing, I could do a 10K in under 25 minutes. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for someone who basically beats your butt in a 10K.

One of the things I think that is very important, as a person with a disability, you need to be leading the process. You need to be driving the process. Professionals can help you achieve your goals, and your family can help support you in achieving your goals, but what’s really important is that you are the leader, you are the one setting the goals, and you are the one staying in focus to achieve them.

My doctoral work is in wheelchair propulsion biomechanics, more specifically, training individuals to push chairs in a safe, biomechanically correct way. And I’m using biofeedback to help encourage people to propel better.

It’s the hope of the study that it’ll help improve people’s independence and reduce the likelihood of individuals developing upper-extremity pain and injury along the way.

I was a gymnast at the University of Illinois, and I was injured in 1993. And it was obviously a huge adjustment. What’s interesting, though, is that my path didn’t change that significantly. And I saw lots of other athletes who were real athletes whom I respected who also used wheelchairs.

So as a newly injured person, you’re confronted with the idea of using a wheelchair. And there’s obviously a stigma associated with that, and you have kind of misconceptions of disability. And so I was in an atmosphere that was a very positive atmosphere and one that was really conducive to my evolution as a person with a disability.

There’s always going to be some slight limitations. But as a person with a disability, one of the important characteristics of someone who succeeds and does well is that they learn to adapt.


In our area, we have a great number of seniors that, as their physical capabilities and cognitive capabilities decline, need help to continue to stay in a home. If not, they have to be placed somewhere where the care is at a much higher level, and where it’s more expensive.

A smart house is a house that helps the individual age in place. So the smart house has sensors that not only sense the individual but sense the house itself.

We became associated with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, who at the time were applying for a National Science Foundation grant to establish an engineering research center.

On the one hand you’ve got the University of Pittsburgh, with the School of Rehabilitative Sciences and Technology and all the research they do. I mean, it’s magnificent, world-renowned. And UPMC along with that.

And then on the other side you have Carnegie Mellon University, and the robotics that they do, and the software. I mean, they’re premier in the world for the kinds of things they do.

You put that together and you have an extraordinary collaboration.

One way of thinking about it is that the house is really a robot itself. It takes that input from sensors, it reacts to it, and then it does something. That’s really what the house does. It senses the needs of the occupants, and then it reacts.

Great, Alice. Thanks for taking your medication. Now don’t forget to take a glass of water and swallow all of your pills. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Bye.

We think of green technology as something that is an option. Well, you know what, it’s not an option anymore. Our average gas bill to heat this house is about $43 a month.

We want to develop technology that will enable older citizens and those with handicaps to live at home, safer, healthier, happier, more efficiently, for as long as they want to. We want to be able to develop technology that will take them from what they can do to what they want to do. It’s restoring people’s dignity.

Just because an individual is diagnosed with autism doesn’t mean that they do not want to be social, that they do not want friends. Because it’s the exact opposite, of course. They want to learn how to be social, and they want to have a friend.

How Spectrum Charter School started … it was back in 1998, and it was a grass roots group of mostly parents, some professional psychologists, psychiatrists, some mental health agencies. And basically they knew that there was a gap in the system. The gap in the educational system was secondary education, and it was transition school-to-work, and it was for the autistic population.

Spectrum Charter School’s academic curriculum is threefold: it is your traditional academics, science, history, math, civics; it is your independent living skills, your basic knowledge skills; and it is your school-to-work transitional skills.

Our curriculum is also in line with the PA standards.

Spectrum Charter School’s approach to improving socialization skills of our students is twofold: it is informal and it is formal. Formal is when we have social therapists come in and work with our students as a group. The other part of our socialization program is informal. It’s socialization skills talked about or taught in our classrooms, in the hallways and out in the community.

I think what we do give our students here which is difficult in maybe a traditional environment is time. We are a small school. We are highly staffed, and we are able to work with our students in regards to one-on-one socialization skills if and when they need it.

I feel that we are a safety net for our students. I have heard from families in regards to what’s happening here and how it changes the home life dynamics. Different parents will say that the son or daughter is a lot happier -- at home, and with themselves.

The Center for Assistive Technology provides evaluations and recommendations and training in reference to assistive devices. Many people don’t know what assistive devices are. Assistive technology is defined as any product, device or service, whether it’s off-the-shelf or customized, that can improve somebody’s functional independence.

A simple thing like wheelchair could be considered assistive technology. Communication devices. Simple reaching devices, or ADL devices that allow somebody to do something more independently or independently. That’s what assistive technology is.

Our clinic is a little bit different in that, instead of it being one discipline, like occupational therapy or physical therapy, all the disciplines are focused around assistive technology. So our core is assistive technology but we have occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech and language therapists, audiologists, rehab engineers, a machinist, physiatrists. So we have a whole collection of professionals that have a lot of good experience and focus in the assistive technology area.

People with disabilities are often looked at as needing something special, needing something over and above and beyond what the regular employee needs. And that’s often not the case. Typically, what the person with the disability needs is a chance.