Special 3-D Construction Session to Reduce Health Care Costs and Improve Quality, PARF Conference

University Park, PA – On Thursday, September 22, at 9:30 a.m. Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering  hosted a session entitled “Using Virtual Reality to Construct/Remodel Health Care Facilities & Independent Housing” in the Alumni Suite at the Nittany Lion Inn. [Listen to the entire session at the end of this posting.]

The session is part of the Pennsylvania Association of Rehabilitation Facilities’ (PARF) annual conference which defines the agenda for the Commonwealth’s disability community. PARF is a statewide organization of facilities serving individuals with physical, mental, social and/or emotional disabilities.  This year, for the first time since PARF was established in 1969, the organization has reached out to Penn State’s Architectural Engineering Department for its expertise in virtual technology. Gene Bianco, PARF’s CEO and President explains, “I was impressed by the ability of 3-D and 4-D technology to help our membership cut costs while increasing quality.” [3-D provides images that appear life-life in three dimensions; 4-D adds time as a dimension, and so, when building a home for the elderly, provides the viewer with the ability to see the construction of the building during intervals, for example, of 3, 6, and 12 months.]


Panelists for the virtual reality session include architectural engineering professors Richard Behr and John Messner. Behr, as director of the Smart Spaces Center for adaptive aging in the community, has been called one of the country’s early prophets of the concept of “aging in place” as a way of preserving individual dignity and saving the considerable costs involved in institutionalization in assistive living facilities.

Messner, who as director of the Computer Integrated Construction (CIC) Research Program, has been using virtual reality to involve end users in the design to create hospitals, health care facilities, and housing for the elderly and disabled.

Panelist Sonali Kumar, a graduate research assistant to Messner,  demonstrated two aspects of virtual reality directly related to the members of the audience who have signed up for this session. The first aspect is the work she has done in creating an animated 3-D model of a residence designed for an elderly family whose members may have a disability or may develop one over the course of the aging process.

The second aspect Kumar demonstrated is experience-based design, a generic description of a body of academic literature that focuses on the importance of consulting with users in the design process. There are a number of users and end users affected by the way health care and facilities for the aging are designed. They include, for example, residents of the facility, health care providers, maintenance personnel, and people involved with the construction. Kumar’s final model will reflect observations from elderly residents of Addison Court, a State College residence for the elderly, planned critiques from a member of the deaf community, and comments from the mobility disabled community. Kumar changed the model to reflect changes from a wheel chair-based observer who suggested replacing an additional bathtub with a roll-in shower.

The fifth and final panelist Joseph Fagnani provided the prospective of a likely resident of an independent living facility for the aged. Fagnani is an Altoona, Pa based visual disabilities advocate who has been legally blind since childhood. Fagnani has the understanding and skill to provide design suggestions to a model intended to visualize how construction takes place even though he is blind. One of Fagnani suggestions is that controls for the stove use voice synthesis to inform residents when burners are turned on and whether the heat is low, medium, or high.

Audience participation

The following  organizations were represented by audience members who signed up for the session:

Transitional Services, based in the Pittsburgh area,  provides up to 240 units of permanent housing in addition to temporary housing and services for individuals with mental disabilities leaving state mental facilities. The organization has $7.5 million in operating expenses and serves 390 individuals. http://www.transitionalservices.org/index.php

Clearfield-Jefferson Mental Health/Mental Retardation Program. With an annual budget of $4 million from federal and state sources, this organization provides a wide range of mental health services including housing. Participant Susan Hartzfeld, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) Director points out that her organization’s name will soon change to reflect legal and other requirements that the “r word is an inappropriate and insensitive designation.” http://www.cljmhmr.com/

JEVS Human Services, based in the Philadelphia area,  serves more than 20,000 individuals each year. According to participant and JEVS Director Jill Rogers, the organization plans new housing construction for the up to 25 elderly and disabled residents and is looking forward to learning how virtual reality “can be a useful tool.” http://www.jevshumanservices.org/

Spectrum Community Services, based in Berks and Carbon counties, was originally founded in 1979 by a group of parents who were looking for living arrangements for their grown children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to a variety of housing options, SCS also provides support services. http://www.spectrumcommunityservices.org/

Allied Services, serving the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, provides rehabilitation medicine, senior care, home health care, and vocational and residential services. The organization, which serves nearly 5,000 people a day, is the largest employer in northeastern Pennsylvania. http://www.allied-services.org/


Special thanks to Joseph Fagnani for not only participating, but for recording the session and making it available. http://www.altoonamirror.com/page/content.detail/id/530388/Blind-man-looks-past-disability-to-help-others.html Of course, thanks to BCC without whom this would not be here.


Travel barriers limit lives of those with disabilities

The following is my June, 2010 column From Where I Sit for Voices of Central Pennsylvania:

“Are you really my son?” my 84-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, asks. Six weeks ago my mother, Dr. Miriam Pell Schmerler, stopped answering the telephone by herself. Our weekly calls were models of  the bizarre, with my combining Hebrew and English into the conversation, knowing that hearing my name in Hebrew sparked recognition not otherwise available. The once a week calls followed a pattern. I would tell her that I was her son. “Really?” she said, “how nice.” Then we would talk about some aspect of her life: her career including a doctorate in Hebrew letters (received in her late 50s) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In our calls I repeatedly identified everyone, Mother’s daughter, grandchildren, and husbands. “You know you were married three times.” “Three times,” she said “that’s a lot, isn’t it?” I then described each of her husbands, including my father who was 27 years older than she. “Isn’t that a big difference in age?” she asked. The ongoing saga of her life amused her. It filled me with a tenderness for my mother I do not recall ever having felt. I remember a Buddhist minister saying that he had “issues” with his mother. The word “issues” seems so refined and polite that I adopted the word instantly. During our conversations, the issues disappeared. My cousin Michael once commented about how witty and charming my mother is. I said I had never observed it. Michael said, “Of course not. She is your mother. She cannot allow herself to be witty and charming in front of you.”

Now that she did not recognize me, other than as a friendly caller telling stories about her life, my mother became a real person for me. My children, Joanna and Amelia, found distress in mother’s inability to recognize her grandchildren. While I tried to explain my perspective, I could not alleviate their distress.

Nor could I alleviate my own distress in mid-March when I called Mother and she did not answer the phone. I began a new routine, calling the staff at the excellent nursing home and asking Jackie, Brooke, Marina, Mary Anne or Kim to go to mother’s room and hand the ringing phone to Miriam. My mother’s voice conveyed a sense of confusion and distress. The conversation was largely gibberish. It became clear that I had to see her. But how?

The answer is circuitous. My 1993 Buick was broken. I entrusted it to Gary D. Green’s College Heights Exxon, a wonderfully reliable institution. My mechanic Jeff told me he needed more time to figure out what was wrong. Nevertheless, I needed to go to Altoona, headquarters of the Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for which I work.

I researched bus service to Altoona which would take me downtown (and my power chair has enough battery power to take me to and from the office), but I could not get to a safe accessible motel where I planned to stay the week. There is no train.

I had heard about a disability van service called Wheelchair Getaways. After talking to Shannon Markley, I decided to pay for the incredibly expensive rental, knowing my creditors would and would not understand. When Shannon mentioned a slight discount for a week or more, I decided to spend the weekend seeing my mother—something I could not do otherwise. For a lengthy drive, neither my Buick nor my stamina could not be relied upon to hold up while going from the wheelchair lift at the rear of the car to the driver’s door, brushing my body against the car in the process.

The van has a button on the ignition key, which when pressed twice, opens the passenger-side panel door and a wheel chair ramp unfolds. I drive my power chair (the airlines at the State College airport refuse to accept power chairs on their flights) up the ramp. After closing the door with two key presses, I use the controls for the driver’s seat to move the seat back, sideways and up, so I can transition from power chair to driver’s seat without difficulty.

Without the van, I would not have been able to go to work, see my mother and have lunch with my two children. This month’s column raises an ongoing theme: the critical nature of travel for those of us with disabilities. Employment opportunities require going to where the work is located. Families separated by miles need to be together even if only on occasion. The worst thing for the economic survival and the individual feeling of self-worth is being confined to one’s room without the opportunity to earn an income and see loved ones. Travel must be made easier for those of us with disabilities.

Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food.

Technology allows blind people to drive cars

The following is my May, 2010 column From Where I Sit for Voices of Central Pennsylvania:

Imagine racing a Ferrari F430 (worth $406,000) at nearly 182 miles per hour and being blind since the age of three. This event took place last month at an airport in Turkey where Metin Fenturk, a folksinger, broke the Guinness “world record for fastest unaccompanied blind driver” previously held by a British manufacturer. On winning, Fenturk said, “I don‘t knowi there are any words to describe this feeling. I am completely happy. It was really hard, like a dance with death:” [See http://voicesweb.org/driving-blind]

On a less-than-pedestrian note, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University(Virginia Tech) has made a major contribution to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) challenge: Design an automobile for an individual who is totally blind to drive safely to and from work by oneself. “Can you imagine a blind person behind the wheel of a car?” the narrator of a video produced by Virginia Tech asks. “Well today it may not be long before you won’t need to imagine.” Virginia Tech’s vehicle was driven by a person who is totally blind and successfully passed a parking lot driving course of considerable complexity.

Virginia Tech’s Steven Mackay, at the engineering college, told me this month two Ford Hybrids are arriving to be retrofitted for people who cannot see. I have been trying frantically to understand the intricacies involved with this technology. My mind is overflowing with technical details I do not yet understand. Meanwhile, Mackay’s clear explanation will have to suffice:

“This laser sensor, mounted on the front of the…vehicle, operates similar to sonar. It sends out a laser beam that will bounce back to the device as it hits an obstacle. The sensor then figures out the distance to the obstacle by measuring the time of flight of the laser beam. As the laser sweeps the environment, the computer constructs a map of all obstacles around the vehicle.”

Here in State College, a discussion with Cary Supalo provides context to encouraging developments for career training for blind students and how Virginia Tech technology energized an NFB science camp when camp members lined up eagerly for their turn to drive. Supalo is president of the local chapter of the NFB, but he is best known for his Penn State career in chemistry. Supalo has a master’s degree on the subject at Penn State and is expected soon to obtain a doctorate and a job as a professional chemist.

Supalo‘s work to encourage blind children to take math, science and engineering courses has been exceptional. As someone who has recently begun a job [technically “a job training program” with the opportunity of a permanent position], I look with hope to Supalo’s lead.

My job for the Altoona-based Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind is to find jobs  for people who want to work but cannot see. Most people who are blind in Altoona and want work do not have the educational background to do anything but themost menial work. Altoona has a surplus of “able-bodied” u n e m p l o y e d workers who can’t find work.  On the order of the ladder, in these still difficult economic times, people with  disabilities are at the bottom. The immediate solution is to work to improve the economic situation as a whole throughout central  Pennsylvania. As the expression goes, “All boats  rise with a high tide.”

Meanwhile, the orchestration of Virginia Tech’s successful test has  Supalo’s handwork written all over it. Supalo is an energetic leader. When I visited Supalo’s office, he was developing professionally required tests a blind chemist can perform independently. Supalo, who is charming and astoundingly  energetic, comes closer to anyone I have met to having the charisma to lead the emerging disability rights movement—a movement that badly needs leaders.

The Jernigan Research Institute wrote the following about Supalo: “His loves are helping blind students expand their comforzones, assisting them to stretch their minto go beyond societal limitations placed on
them since birth and encouraging them to strive to follow their dreams.”

The best job a disabled person can have is one that is part of a career— well-paid, stable, leading to advancement and providing profession rewards. Our disability community through central Pennsylvania must work vigorously to change our area’s education system so students graduate from high school after mastering basic requirements so becoming a scientist is an achievable goal. As a society, we are wasting the talent of the physically disabled whatever their individual career goals. This waste is not only a crime; it is bad for the economy.