Tackling Issues of the Disabled Head-On
When Noah Hershkowitz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin (and an APS fellow), attends a scientific conference, the first challenge he encounters is the hotel. Hershkowitz suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound, and invariably ends up having to ask hotel staff to make numerous accommodations, from removing extra furniture or a bathroom door to allow access of his wheelchair, to adding an extra grab bar in the bathroom, or temporary ramp at the front entrance to enable him to navigate the steps to the lobby.
While the regular sessions at a recent meeting in New Orleans proved reasonably accessible to him, he wasn't able to attend one reception since it required maneuvering a small flight of stairs, with no wheelchair access available. However, "Since wheelchairs are the wrong height for receptions where people are all standing, I wasn't too disappointed," he says.
Hershkowitz is not alone in his frustrations. Charles Siegal, an attorney based in LA who earned a PhD in physics in 1972, suffered from polio as a youth, which limits substantially the use of his arms and legs, although he generally manages to function without the use of wheelchairs, crutches or canes. Still, lengthy passageways in airports or hotels, or long walks between meeting rooms, can take their toll. Disabled persons also struggle with the lack of electronic hearing aids, raised speaker platforms, thick carpeting, and so on.
Addressing these and other obstacles faced by disabled scientists is the objective of the newly formed APS Task Force on Disabilities (see August/September 2000 APS News); both Hershkowitz and Siegal are members. The task force has already suggested a list of the most common deficiencies in hotels and conference centers, and is hopeful that with the strong support of the APS and other professional organizations, hotels will be encouraged to improve in this area. And, as Siegal points out, it is hardly a matter of charity. "As an increasing number of people with substantial disabilities move into the workforce, they will demand goods and services to meet their quite specialized needs," he says.
Many concerns can be addressed with accommodations that "are almost trivial," says Siegal, such as the physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University (where he attended graduate school) who allowed him to use a small lab office to eat his lunch to save him the arduous walk to the college cafeteria. And there are many state and federal laws in place that require more elaborate accommodations, although these are not always complied with.
The scientific community can also contribute to improving access for disabled persons in more long-term, even creative ways. "I would like to think that the Society's members would deploy their skills to address issues of people with disabilities," says Siegal. "The scientific and technological community can have a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities, not just by being attuned to their own students and co-workers, but by recognizing problems for which technological solutions are the best ones."
For example, Siegal points out that advances in medicine and microprocessor technology have enabled implantation in the retina of devices to assist those with visual impairments. His fellow task force member, John Gardner (Oregon State University), has spent a substantial part of his career developing software to allow people with print impairments to use computers. An inventor named Ralf Hotchkiss who received his undergraduate degree in physics won a MacArthur Prize for designing wheelchairs that can be built in developing countries out of bicycle parts. In fact, Hotchkiss recently demonstrated such a wheelchair capable of walking up and down the curb and navigating a broad range of terrain in both urban and rural areas.
Concludes Siegal, "As I see it, the purpose of the APS task force is not simply to point out problems its disabled members encounter, but to suggest things Society members might do to lower or erase the walls that stand in the way of those with disabilities — be they students, professionals in the physical or other sciences, or in society at large — from realizing potentials that their disabilities sometimes mask."
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette