Tag Archives: scooter

Pictorial essay on how Penn State’s “football culture” adversely affects disabled students

[Readers: Sadly, in July 2012 nothing has changed to guarantee the safety of disabled students regarding the hazards described in this photo essay written in 2006. See note at the end of the essay for more information on how this essay came to be written and why nothing has yet been done to secure the safety of disabled students.]

Unmarked dangers to disabled students

October 8, 2006

TO: Dr. Richard Devon
FROM: Joel Solkoff
SUBJECT: Unmarked dangers to wheelchair, scooter, power chair riders and the blind immediately to the left of the Leonard Building.

The Leonard Building is a useful landmark for people going from the White Course graduate dormitories in the direction of the Atherton Bridge and the crossings on Atherton Road that do not involve going across the bridge’s steep incline.

 Photo 1: Front of the Leonard Building.

Looking at the map, if you go left and then across the Applied Sciences building, there appears to be a convenient right at the bridge at the Information and Technology building. Or, working one’s way through the White Course Parking lot, there eventually is a street cut, making it possible to cross Atherton on a level area.

My concern in September, 2006 was that after frequent crossings on the bridge, I would wind up on the sidewalk at Burrowes Road, going in the direction of College Avenue, only to find, on one of several occasions as many of three wet/drying pieces of sidewalk concrete and no place for a scooter to comfortably get around the often heavy traffic. So, I was driving my scooter around Leonard in the hope of finding a more convenient path to College Avenue.

Photo 2: It looks safe enough. No warning signs. Well-maintained concrete. Well-tended grass.

Photo 3: You can see my shadow as the scooter continues.

Photo 4: I am trying to give you a sense of how innocent this passage appears.

Photo 5. It suddenly is not innocent any more.

Photo 6. I don’t see these steps until my scooter nearly falls down them.

Power chairs and wheelchairs are similarly low to the ground. Indeed, the blind have no way of knowing about this likely danger.

Photo 7. A graduate student running up these stairs to go to classes passes me and watches me taking photographs.

“Can I help you?” she says. “Yes, take my picture.” She does, rushing back up the stairs, wishing me luck.

[Note: The reference to “football culture” in the title of this post refers to the Freeh Report on the scandal at Penn State released in July 2012. It is my contention, as a former graduate student at Penn State with a disability and as one who is part of the elderly community, that the focus by powerful officials on football-above-all has also been used to cover up exploitation of disabled and elderly students and students who are veterans (especially disabled-veterans) and to discourage recruitment of such individuals to become students.

[During the Fall Semester of 2006, I successfully completed a graduate-level independent study course at the Department of Engineering with Dr. Richard Devon. The focus of my study was access for individuals with disabilities on Penn State‘s University Park campus. The photographic essay above is one of several documents provided to Dr. Devon, whose sponsorship provided me with the ability to interview Penn State officials responsible for disability services and the construction and maintenance of the physical design of the campus to meet the special needs of individuals with disabilities.

[I showed this essay to officials responsible for correcting hazards to individuals with disabilities. I received detailed confidential explanations that correcting them to assure safety was impossible since it would involve putting up signs and drawing attention to the presence of disabled individuals which President Graham Spanier had personally prohibited because of his concern that parents of prospective football players would be dissuaded from attending Penn State if they thought the school appeared to have too many individuals with disabilities.

[The dangers described in this essay continue despite the awareness of responsible officials. The requirement to change the “culture of football” which continues these abuses to disabled students continues to pose a challenge to the Trustees and Administrators at Penn State who are under the illusion that the findings of the Freeh report are limited to the sexual predatory practices of an individual who is now in jail and to former officials who failed to protect children.

[I plan to continue documenting details on the wide-ranging abuses by Penn State toward individuals who are disabled (including veterans), the elderly, and the community which is economically dependent upon Penn State until these abuses are recognized as part of what is popularly known as the Sandusky sex scandal and until these abuses are corrected. As Judge Freeh observed, wide-range reform is required for Penn State to recover from the worst scandal in its history and once again demonstrate that it is an institution devoted to education and the welfare of its students, faculty, employees, and community. “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”] 

 

Random Thoughts: January 30, 2013

Time for more random updates and personal revelations out of date to everyone but me

January 30, 2013: Someone stole Goya’s head. (The fact that his happened in the 19th Century is irrelevant.)

“On a November morning of 1888 in the cemetery of the Grande Chartreuse, Bordeaux, the Spanish counsel resident in that opulent city received the shock of his life. Hastening to the nearest telegraph he dispatched a wire to Madrid: GOYA SKELETON HEADLESS.

From Goya's Disasters of War, soldier cutting off head. Other Goya drawings show heads on spikes.
From Goya’s Disasters of War, soldier cutting off head. Other Goya drawings show heads on spikes.

”In a less agitated condition and able to recall the master’s whimsical etching of a seated corpse pushing up the lid of a tomb bearing the one word Nada (‘Nothing’), the counsel might pardonably begun his telegram TYPICAL GOYAESQUE SITUATION….

“Dying in self-chosen exile in 1828, at the age of eighty-two, Francisco Joseph Goya y Luciente had been buried in the tomb of a close friend and fellow-expatriate, Miguel Martin Goicoichea, deceased three years previously, the memorial tablet accurately proclaimed him Hispaniensis Peritisimus Pictor. His skull, stolen at some time unknown, has not been seen or heard of since. The exhumation duly proceeded, and Goya’s truncated remains were returned with honour to his native land after an absence of sixty-six years.”

The World of Goya by D.B. Wyndham Lewis

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It reminded me of the night when on the George Washington Bridge, bound for Manhattan, I encountered a raccoon determinedly padding his way back to the New Jersey shore. –A. J. Liebling

Amelia as a torch singer at her high school graduation

Designing a trip and a way of life

On Wednesday, I will take the longest trip since I first arrived in State College, PA about six years ago. I will be attending my daughter Amelia Altalena Solkoff’s graduation ceremony at the University of North Carolina in Ashville. Amelia has already earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and while the ceremony may be a mere formality, it is not a formality I can miss. Many of the people I love most in the world will be there, including Amelia’s older sister Joanna who received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is currently completing nursing school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last time I was in Ashville was 19 years ago before I lost the ability to walk as a result of a spinal cord injury. Both my daughters have visited me here in State College, but while I have driven to other places, the 900 mile drive has eluded me to the place where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.”

My elder daughter Joanna visiting me at State College.

My trip to Ashville marks a new feature for the joelsolkoff.com site. Here I will finally take my best friend David Phillips’ advice and begin a consumer book on scooters, power chairs, and peripheral devices. Al Thieme, who invented the power operated vehicle (POV) scooter and the chief executive officer of Amigo Mobility has supplied me with his latest travel scooter, which I will be evaluating on the trip. Other manufacturers are invited to supply equipment for evaluation.

I assembled the scooter myself in my messy apartment.

The fact that this feature begins with equipment for disability travel is especially appropriate. I have been writing about disability travel for a while now and this trip to Amelia’s ceremony provides the opportunity to focus on the importance of people with disabilities being able to visit loved ones, obtain employment, and function in this mobile society. Each of my daughters has extensive experience over the past 18 years of my paraplegia riding mobility devices, figuring out inventive ways of providing me with access to the world, and indeed helping me put out a fire when an electrician installed a wheel chair lift to my car using faulty wiring and burning down my red Buick.

+++

The word “design” is actually the primary theme of this website, of my career, and indeed of my personal life. As anyone who knows me will testify, I am by nature an impulsive person, but impulsivity can lead to danger for those of us who are disabled. We need to put aside basic parts of our personality (as I have done and failed to do to my regret) in order to consider the consequences and redesign ourselves for a world that is not built for the elderly and disabled.

–Joel Solkoff, April 28, 2012, State College, PA

Method acting classes have made a new man of me.

Stay tuned to this posting for more, which contrary to traditional blog chronological custom, will appear as I write my story. Links will be dropped in without warning. Become a frequent flyer and subscribe to this site.

Celebration of the Use of Virtual Reality to Improve Housing for the Elderly and Disabled

University Park, PA.  On Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 10a.m. Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering and its Smart Spaces Center for Adaptive Aging in Community celebrated progress made in a coordinated effort to reduce the cost of housing for Pennsylvania’s elderly and disabled residents today and in the future.

The celebration took place at the virtual reality Immersive Construction (ICon) Laboratory. The celebration:

  1. Demonstrated the use of full-scale 3-D virtual models on large display screens for evaluating cost-effective designs to allow for aging in place. The animated model, based on the Blueroof  Technologies housing initiative in McKeesport, PA, is the work of graduate student Sonali Kumar. The virtual reality approach allows for an avatar to enter the wheel-chair accessible cottage and evaluate tasks such as making coffee in a kitchen to appropriately design for residents who desire housing where they can grow old without having to move to a costly institution.
  2. Allowed participants to meet the leaders of Blueroof Technologies in McKeesport, PA using a live video connection.  Blueroof is using prefabricated housing with embedded sensors for improving user interaction with their residence.  The environment can inform a resident when to take medication, monitor for falls (then, call 911 if the resident slips in the shower and does not get up), and provide televised links to medical facilities reducing routine medical care cost.
  3. Show the work of the Computer Integrated Construction Research Program, directed by John Messner, associate professor of architectural engineering,  focusing on the application of advanced computer modeling to improve the design, construction, and operation processes for buildings.
  4. Present the work of architectural engineering students  trained in using 3-D experienced-based design.  Virtual modeling is rapidly becoming an important tool for the construction industry, providing the ability to make changes in health care and other facilities before construction actually takes place.
  5. Provide an opportunity for residents of Addison Court, a State College independent living facility for elderly and disabled individuals, to see what the future will bring and serve as critics who can use their life experiences to aid in the design process.
  6. Highlight the work of  Penn State’s Smart Spaces Center, directed by Richard Behr, who leads an interdisciplinary effort to address the needs of the rapidly increasing number of baby boomer Americans who wish to age successfully in their own homes.
  7. Recognize contributions made by the Raymond A. Bowers Program for Excellence in Design and Construction of the Built Environment, the Smart Spaces Center, the Partnership for Achieving Construction Excellence, and other private and public organizations working with Penn State to improve life for Pennsylvania’s elderly and disabled.
  8. Using a scooter from Amigo Mobility, Blueroof will begin to experiment on how to help residents with mobility disabilities make better use of the technology around them. The Amigo scooter will have an iPad 2 and other remote devices so residents can turn the lights on and off and perform other functions without leaving the chair.
After Florida, Pennsylvania has the highest per capita of elderly of any state in the union. Not all news about health care costs is bad news. Come learn about some of the good news.
Computer Integrated Construction Research Program:
Immersive Construction Lab (ICon Lab):
Smart Spaces Center:
Immersive Construction Lab
306 Engineering Unit C
University Park, PA 16802

My first scooter: Originally published as a Valentine to the Durable Medical Equipment Industry

 [The following was originally published in the February, 2011 edition of HME News as a Valentine to the Durable Medical Equipment industry. The love continues.]

I was so angry, wild with fatigue, that I lifted my ugly drug store cane intending to destroy my employer’s computer printer. This was in California’s Silicon Valley. The printer was networked to nine computers. After a late night writing a portion of a manual on silicon wafer inspection, I commanded the computer to print.

After I weaved my way to the printer (seemingly miles away from the computer), there was no document. Five trips back and forth (nothing each time) and my level of frustration caught up to my level of exhaustion. My control was at the breaking point.

Six months previously, I had lost my ability to walk. The concepts I was writing about were hard to understand even when I had been healthy and well-rested. My ability to physically support my body was shaky. I fell several times a day. My right arm had been badly dislocated in a fall. What I needed was a fore-arm crutch with properly fitted prosthetics or a scooter. My doctors focused on understanding how I lost the ability to walk and little on how I could live without walking.

Mortgage payments were due. Home was North Carolina where a wife and two elementary-school-aged children waited. The local economy determined technical writers were not currently needed. At the same time (1996), California needed my skills as of yesterday and I was promptly hired for KLA-Tencor, a company paying large sums to do fascinating work.

I did not break the printer. I drove to my apartment, slept and thumbed the yellow pages praying for relief. I did not know what I was looking for. After a while, I left a voice mail with a dealer in wheelchairs and scooters (not knowing then what a scooter was). That is how I purchased my first mobility device.

Scott returned my call and listened to my situation. We talked price. He recommended a used front-wheel drive scooter. I was skeptical. “Let me show you how it works,” he said, crossed town quickly and lifted a scooter from his truck. I sat down and drove circles around the empty street. My able-bodied college friend David Phillips, in whose house I had an apartment, was fascinated. Keeping David from driving my scooter was hard.

I had discovered three important things about mobility devices:

    • They are fun.
    • They take away the drudgery of not being able to walk.
    • They remove the image that I am someone to be pitied.

I arrived at KLA-Tencor, having:

    • Given Scott a down payment (the beginning of many, mostly personal, expenditures, on equipment, including rear-wheel  drive scooters, power chairs, wheelchair lifts and ramps)
    • Taken the scooter apart myself and shakily inserted the parts into the trunk
    • Slid sidewise hugging the Pontiac’s body
    • Reversed the process

My colleagues applauded. I had solved a physical problem with a technical solution and in the Silicon Valley that was worthy of commendation.

As I look back on the past 14 years, especially worthy of commendation are you, the suppliers of DMEPOS. My time with you here is almost up. Traditionally a column is about 750 words. I have used most of them. A 750-word column can express effectively only one major idea. That idea is that you, the medical suppliers, and people like me, your customers, are a family.

We are a family surviving in a world where David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s former budget director, said in November on ABC News that the United States can no longer afford to provide its disabled citizens with “scooters.” As competitive bidding illustrates, clearly a bipartisan effort is underway to make it difficult for the disabled to receive mobility and other DMEPOS devices and for you, our local medical suppliers, to get paid for them or even to stay in business.

The pain is especially felt by indigent consumers and small suppliers. In this month where every day is Valentine’s Day, it is helpful to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin (an amorous man if ever there was one) on the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

–Joel Solkoff is a monthly columnist on disability and elderly related issues for Voices in State College, Pa. He is the author of three books, including The Politics of Food and Learning to Live Again: My Triumph Over Cancer. He served in the Carter Administration as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Labor. He has a bipartisan loathing of anyone trying to keep assistive technology from individuals with disabilities—a loathing he is trying to turn into corrective love.

Goodbye car, you served me well

Here I am sitting at the wheel chair lift at the rear of my 1993 Buick which died this month at State College PA and is, as I write, now a paperweight-like compressed object already sold by the wrecking car company that bought the car. The odometer reading at the car’s death was 160,084 miles.
I bought the used Buick Skylark on Valentine’s Day 1998 when I was working as a technical writer at the pharmaceutical company then known as Glaxo Wellcome. I was living with my now former wife and two daughters in Durham, NC. At the time, I had not graduated from a front-wheel drive power operated vehicle (POV) scooter—easy to take apart and put together, but incapable of going up hills.
Shown above is a descendant of my first rear-wheel drive scooter which I purchased sometime later when I was a contractor at an electric meter factory writing a manual on how to communicate with an electric meter, using communications protocol to take readings, to have the meter phone 911 when the building is on fire, and to do other intricate things not yet devised but requiring hours of meetings while two geniuses from Moscow and their Russian interpreter to figure out how to get all digital meters to communicate. The meetings were in the conference room in the factory down the hill from our offices, and the engineers and I would go down together and then they would push me back up the hill.
One of the engineers was married to a woman who had multiple sclerosis (MS) and as her disease progressed she required more sophisticated mobility devices. The engineer brought in his wife’s Electric Mobility rear wheel drive scooter, a scooter I purchased on the spot with a modest down payment and monthly payments. The Electric Mobility scooter served me well, eventually letting me ride around the Grand Canyon close to the rim. Wow. Alas, not only is the scooter history, but so is the company that made it; Electric Mobility went out of business this month. But, I digress.
The immediate car need was based on the fact that my wife Diana had a job in the opposite direction of my job and with two young children to take to soccer, softball, to this and too that and for everyone’s sanity, I needed a car.
At the time, exhaustion was a major part of my daily life and my weekends were spent recovering from the work week. Diana decided the time had come for me to buy a car. I agreed but did not care what it looked like as long as it was able to accommodate a Class 5 hitch, required for assembling a wheel chair lift like the one in the photograph. I did not yet have the money for a wheel chair lift, but I figured I would begin the process of preparing for a lift.
I was too tired to go car shopping. Diana called from the used car dealer and said she had found this Buick Skylark. “Buy it,” I said. She insisted I look at the car before I bought it and I did.
For months after purchase, I spent considerable time first getting the hitch, then the air shocks, and finally the lift. The lift was installed by a man who did not know what he was doing. I drove the car with new lift into the garage, where my daughters Joanna and Amelia greeted me with enthusiasm for my latest assistive technology acquisition. Amelia, the family’s eagle eye observer, said, “Dad, the car is on fire.” I looked. It was and as I followed the flames to the engine, Joanna and Amelia helped me put out the fire. The repair work required was extensive and the restored Buick still did not have a lift that worked.
By this time, I was at the electric meter company full of a lot of electricians. I bullied and paid one electrician to hook up the lift. At the time, the number of capable people working with disability devices was limited. Much of the early period in my now 18-year-old disability consisted of persuading people, like electricians, that they could work on a disability problem because, as I said to the electrician, the principles of electricity do not change simply because the lift is a disability device.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 1999, a deer jumped over my car doing extensive damage to the engine. Joanna and Amelia expressed concern for the deer, who ran into the forest and I amused the two policemen who arrived on the scene when I requested that they search the forest to see whether they could see an injured deer in need of medical attention. They searched and told my daughters, who had by then arrived on the scene, that the deer was all right.
I should not confess this, because you might doubt my sanity, but when the deer jumped and I saw it, for an instant we established eye contact and I felt as if we had shared each other’s souls. Readers who have hit deer may recollect the disorientation that comes when Boom/Crash happens and may be understanding.
The following year, I drove the once fire-deer-ravaged car to San Jose, CA without incident and until this month my Buick was astonishingly well-behaved. Returning to the East Coast, viz. San Jose to Philadelphia, the car acquired an air conditioner in Boise, ID which leaked continually.
Leaks in the body and loss of rubber seals around the doors meant that Buick was continually being flooded and I spent a great deal of time putting towels on the floor, washing and drying them, and replacing them. Mold was a frequent automotive odor and Amelia once said, “Every time I smell mold, I think of you.”
For seemingly ever, I drove the Buick from Philadelphia to North Carolina and back, seeing my children, relocating my mother to the Blumenthal Jewish Home for the Aged in Greensboro and visiting her, and attending Joanna and Amelia’s graduations. The Buick relocated me to State College, PA and took me to Altoona last year where I did some work for the Blair/Clearfield County for the Blind.
Recently, a friend seeing this photo asked how I was able to get from the rear of the car to the driver’s seat:
I drive my scooter to the ramp
·        insert the key into the controls
·        depress the toggle switch so the wheel chair ramp descends
·        ride onto the ramp
·        swivel the seat 180 degrees
·        stand up
·        push the toggle switch up so the ramp ascends
·        hug the side of my dirty car with my clean clothes and body (not to mention my virtuous mind)
Then, I hang on with my fingertips to the strip above the doors:
·        moving with a less than perfect gate
·        throwing myself into the driver’s seat (the door having been opened in preparation)
·        taking gasping gulps of air until my breathing slows down
·        inserting the ignition key so the car starts, and closing the door,
I then drive following a procedure on file with the U.S. Office of Patents office under “Solkoff’s Dreadful Driving Technique.”
Because I have not been dutiful about rehabilitation and movement, my body cannot handle many (sometimes any) stops between here and there. I need a disability van.
This one would be perfect.
Sadly, the Buick that served me so well is dead. Long live a disability van.  Hint. Hint.
–Joel Solkoff

What’s the fuss? [Grilled 101]

What’s the fuss? [Grilled 101]

I originally created this blog as a convenient way for readers to have access to my monthly column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, published from October 2009 to February 2011. While recovering from minor cardiac surgery where the medical standard of “do no harm” was once again violated, I decided to quit my column rather than continue to be a person unable to change Medicare and thus always angry all the time. I wanted to love.

I am a frequenter of hospitals for pneumonia, rehabilitation to a right shoulder that cannot be repaired, diabetes, etc.–invariably released by Medicare dictate before it is necessary; frequently saved by homecare agencies now foolishly required to reduce their services.

In writing my column for February (the one below that begins with bull riding), I opted to reject anger.
Similarly, the once favorable economic conditions in downtown State College, PA where I live had given me the hope that government favorable to the disabled and elderly might provide us with the infrastructure, training, and understanding required to develop and benefit from the talent of those of us who are broken in body but sound in mind.

It is foolish to be angry at my fellow-town mates (in a place that is rapidly turning into a Bruce Springsteen song) who are so beset with troubles of their own that…

So, I gave up the column to work with engineers, architects, and designers who are planning a future that follows the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and where segregation of the sort I experience daily at Ye Olde College Diner and the like (whose lack of access is grandfathered ) does not exist.

What does exist is that I continue to live an independent life. I cannot get from my bed to the bathroom without a scooter or other mobility device. Yes, there is a point where reality requires that I cannot engage in submission, cheerful or otherwise.

I must have access to mobility devices. President Obama, for whom I worked and voted, should be ashamed of himself for not only tolerating, but personally advocating a competitive bidding program for durable medical equipment.

This plan, which the President inherited from President Bush (who used it as part of an effort to gut Medicare) is already, in Pittsburgh and other locations, so altering the process of providing medical supplies such as oxygen, wheelchairs, power chairs, scooters and other mobility devices that local suppliers, such as the three here in State College, would only be able to serve the rich.

The rest of us are or would be at the mercy of often out-of-state suppliers of dubious reputation who would take their sweet time providing batteries and maintenance, resulting in people like me falling and going into assisted living facilities. Thus savings in Part B of Medicare would result in large costs in Part A.

Last year’s measure to end competitive bidding received the bipartisan support of so many members of the House that if the Democratic leadership had called it up for a vote it would have passed. The Senate followed the lead of Senator Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and no member of the Democratically-controlled senate endorsed the legislation.

While Sen. Casey publicly dithered about his position on the subject, his real position appeared to become clear. Sen. Casey is reportedly a friend of the President. The President, for reasons of his own, an informed source told me, personally believes in competitive bidding. Sen. Casey is not going to take a position that would make his friend angry.

Two columns below express the views of Rep. Jim Langevin, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island, and Rep. Glenn Thompson, a conservative Republican who represent me here in the Fifth Congressional District of Pennsylvania, expressing their opposition to competitive bidding. Their specific advocacy was to the legislation introduced last year, but this year’s legislation is déjà vu all over again.

My friends who meet regularly at the Corner Room in this sliver of left wing political power here in the small borough of State College (surrounded on all sides by Republicans; Republicans to the north; Republicans to the south; Republicans to the east, and Republicans to the west) cherish the liberal’s dream that someday these evil Republicans will turn into progressive Democrats.

My fixation on competitive bidding has made me a source of jest and some mistrust. My support of Rep. Thompson, especially, has made some Democrats suspect my loyalty to the party.

I am a loyal Democrat who believes in the party of Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. I have no trouble picturing Eleanor Roosevelt shaking her trademark index finger at President Obama and Senator Casey. If they want my vote, they had better start acting like Democrats. Democrats don’t treat people who cannot walk in a way that causes us to feel like cripples.

Shame on you President Obama. Shame on you Senator Casey.

I will pray that you find your way back to the ideals of the Democratic party.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

–Joel Solkoff, March 2011

Floor plan Blueroof Experimental Cottage

High-tech elderly and disability housing in the real world; namely McKeesport, Pennsylvania:

McKeesport is the home of Blue Roof Technologies. http://www.bluerooftechnologies.com/


Yes, it is wheelchair accessible.

This is a floor plan of the inside. I have driven my scooter through all of it, so I know it exists. I also know that right now there is an elderly individual living in a cottage of this design and more cottages are becoming available for residence as I key in these words.

Sensors command that 911  be called automatically if a resident falls. The apartment reminds (the apartment reminds? here walls talk) the resident when to take medication.

Protect disabled, elderly from fires and disasters

From Where I Sit: My column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, November 2010

My only experience with an earthquake was in the Silicon Valley of California.  I was staring at my broken computer when the earth moved beneath me. The following day The San Jose Mercury News put the earthquake on page one because of its intensity and also contained an editorial on the importance of being prepared.

My home (wife, two daughters, two cats) was back in North Carolina.  There I had worked in Research Triangle Park for two years (focusing on linking a computer to a telephone switch) had disappeared. Without warning jobs in documentation had become the moral equivalent of famine where two years previously had been feast. [At  a Northern Telecom job interview I had been told being a technical writer had secured me a guaranteed income for life (gold watch and all)] .

At the same time as my gold watch turned into costume jewelry, my ability to walk disappeared. I had gone from being able to jog on the beautifully wooded track on the corporate campus, to being unable to stand without holding onto something, to tripping on my toes and dislocating my right shoulder.

 

 An extensive search of databases showed San Jose, California, could not hire technical writers quickly enough. A longtime friend had extra room nearby and invited me to go west. I was hired immediately. I fell three times during a critical interview. My cane could not hold my weight. I had not yet acquired my first mobility device, a frontwheel drive scooter.

 

 After my third fall, directly in front of my prospective boss’ feet, Vicki, who was in charge of the corporate quality assurance team, said, “Don’t worry. We have to hire you.” The reason I had to be hired was that the company, a global leader in computer wafer inspection devices, needed a writer for its new product which could predict when a wafer in the production process would be faulty and remove it from its production line on a timely basis. What the company had not prepared for was any safety orientation for disabled workers.

***

 

 These details are relevant to the evolution of fire safety policies at Addison Court in downtown State College. They are relevant because first, until recently the idea of protecting the disabled and elderly from fire and other emergencies was low on our society’s consciousness. Second, limiting safety and access to one location and one building has long-term negative consequences to our country’s economy—an economy which to its detriment fails to make use of the talent of its disabled and elderly population.

 

 R e g a r d i n g safety at Addison Court, a residence for 90 elderly and disabled individuals, where as a result of faulty fire alarms about two years ago, we learned from Steve Bair, fire director of Centre County’s Council of Governments (COG) and head of Alpha Fire Company, the proper way of evacuating a building made of brick with adequate sprinklers:

Do not evacuate. Wait for the fire company to come. Evacuation of disabled and elderly residents (in a multi-story building), especially when they have power chairs, wheel chairs, and the like, can induce panic.

 

 More on this do not evacuate concept which the fire authorities refer to as “defend in place” later. It makes good economic sense to protect disabled and elderly individuals from dying or being hurt in a fire or in some other disaster. A larger question is whether this society has the will to pay for safety, the understanding of where safety belongs in our order of priorities, and the willingness to teach and implement concepts like “defend in place.”

The most recent available Census Department statistics for Centre County (based on a 2006-2008 estimate) shows a total population of a little more than 144,000; 45,000 residents are 45 years old and older. Nearly 16,000 residents range in age from 65 years to over 85. What is the cost to Centre County and society at large to keeping these 16,000 residents safe and productive if many of them require special safety procedures? Who should pick up the tab? IWe need to invest in quieter, gentler fire alarms so that residents stay in place until the fire trucks come.

Several subjects require elaboration on the voiceswepage.org webpage: direct your browser to future blogs on the following subects:

  • Administrative efforts to reduce panic.
  • The continuation of my meandering earthquake story and where it fits into a larger picture.
  • Plans to make Lady Gaga Fire Prevention Celebrity for Centre County.

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. For a continuation of themes raised in this column, see Joel;s blog at voicesweb.org.Tell me how you liked the photograph of Lady Gaga and an illustrated critique of her disability-related video Paparazzi.