Architects for Change

Global Architecture Star Zaha Hadid: BBC Video plus my column for e-architect

++++ My column for e-architect begins:

Joel Solkoff’s Column – Volume II, No. 2

Writing on architects plus their role in the imminent global Baby Boom housing crisis

Zaha Hadid’s Miami compared to my life in rural “Rust Belt” Pennsylvania

“Miami has long been the economic and commercial capital of Latin America, both English and Spanish are commonly understood and it has been the place where many Latinos could be sure their money and their persons were safe from government takeover.”

The Almanac of American Politics by Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon

In 2016 Zaha Hadid will be instrumental in the revitalization of Downtown Miami. In four years, Zaha Hadid’s design for a residential high-rise in the financial district of Miami overlooking scenic Biscayne Bay will be completed. Currently, the design is presented to the public and potential buyers of condominiums in the form of an elaborately sophisticated laser-based imaging system that produces photographic images such as this one of Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum project.

To see photographs and read all, please go to:

Caution: Readers may experience whiplash as the column goes back and forth from the luxury of Downtown Miami to the misery of Central, PA.

Lady Gaga: When you became disabled in “Paparazzi,” you needed cooler equipment

Living in Central Pennsylvania has isolated me from the world’s realities. Until last month, I was unaware of Lady Gaga. [This posting originally appeared on October 10, 2010 at the web site of Voices of Central Pennsylvania, my home away from home. .]

This Lady shattered my consciousness. Not paying much attention to the fact that Lady Gaga was on the cover of September’s Vanity Fair, I bought the issue anyway. I buy Vanity Fair for the political reporting and because it is one of the best paying magazines for writers. I figure buying and reading a copy is like buying a lottery ticket. You can’t win if you don’t play.

The cover story on Lady Gaga says, “She is, without question, the world’s biggest pop star—with 12 million sales worldwide of her 2008 debut album (The Fame and bonus disc The Fame Monster). She had six No.1 hits on the Billboard charts: Just DancePoker FaceLove GamePaparazziBad Romance, andTelephone. She has had close to 800 million viewers of her videos on YouTube. She recently broke the record on Facebook with more than 12 million fans—surpassing those of President Obama.”

Then, Lady Gaga became a political activist.Lady  Gaga has close ties to the gay community. Indeed, there have been rumors that Lady Gaga is a man in women’s clothing—a rumor effectively quashed in a startlingly revealing scene in the brilliantly made video Telephone in which two prison guards strip her to determine that she is a woman. “Pity,” one guard says to the other guard.

Telephone is about a telephone call that takes place in a woman’s prison in which the astoundingly beautiful Beyoncé plays a featured role. I do not know whether Lady Gaga is beautiful or whether her songs are great music because she is basically a magician and I love her with a love that is more than a love.

At the end of September Lady Gaga engaged in one of the most bizarre forms of lobbying I have ever experienced. Groups such as the Service Members Legal Defence Network asked Lady Gaga to ask senators primarily REPUBLICANS to repeal the “Don’t ask; don’t tell policy” established during the Clinton Administration in which gays can serve in the military as long as they do not reveal their homosexual proclivities.

News 24 Entertainment Celebrity News reported: “In a black-and-white video posted on her website, the singer is dressed in a modest suit and tie, with a US flag as a backdrop, and looks somberly into the camera as she describes how ‘gay soldiers have become targets’ under the 1993 rule that has seen 14.000 Americans discharged from military service, ‘regardless of how honorable or how valuable they may have been to their units.’”

This story of a lobbying effort that began as a Twitter tweet was covered extensively. For another version as well as the tie in to the meat dress (at the Google prompt type in “Lady Gaga’s meat dress”); first, though, key in, “Lady Gaga lobbies Republican senators.”

The reason REPUBLICANS were targeted primarily has to do with the way the U.S. Senate conducts its business, a discussion that is too long for now. There were not enough Democrats willing to vote for gay rights and there were enough moderate Republicans who could have made the difference. Lady Gaga personally lobbied Senator Sue Collins of Maine, who said on the floor that she was in favor of abolishing Don’t ask; don’t tell. If she had voted then and there to follow her own convictions, then her vote would have made the difference. Instead, she chose not to vote for “procedural reasons” which the panel of Washington Week in Review said meant that in this election year, Senator Collins did not want to give the Democrats a win.

The following is Lady Gaga’s lobbying YouTube video. When she’s old enough (minimum age is 30), can you picture Lady Gaga in the U.S. senate? I can.

Lady Gaga says in the video that she is against all kinds of discrimination. I would like to enlist Lady Gaga’s help in helping solve ongoing problems here in State College regarding our disabled and elderly residents.

Lady Gaga is especially equipped to be helpful in this regard given her sensational video Paparazzi. Her lover throws her off a balcony and she emerges in a wheel chair, holding on to forearmed crutches (such as the ones I have in my closet): While she uses the crutches to get up, she is wearing a silver bodice, tight and revealing, singing:

“I’m your biggest fan/ I’ll follow you until you love me/ Papa-Paparazzi/ Baby there’s no other superstar/ You know that I’ll be/ Your Papa-Paparazzi./”

As she sings she wears a neck brace studded with jewels.

[Fashion note: Suggestion to Lady Gaga. You might want to consider wearing a better class of brace when doing future versions. The forearm crutch comes in a number of variations. The top of the line is the Lofstrand forearm crutch (also known as the Canadian crutch) in wood. I saw a Mexican soap opera star who wore forearm crutches in oak which was polished to gleam and made him look very sexy. I have spent more time than I care to admit looking for a Lofstrand crutch in wood. Wooden versions of the crutch were commonly available 10 years ago, but comfort (aluminum and other materials are lighter) has given way to beauty. If, oh Lady, you decided to go with gleaming oak, I will find you a sexy crutch. As for a wheelchair, what you need is a scooter. Suggested manufacturers include Amigo, made in the USA. and Pride, designed in Scranton, PA. The movement where your sycophants carry you effortlessly up a stair, she be redone to make it clear that you and the chair are heavy.]

What I want you, oh dear Lady Gaga, as a disability and elderly rights advocate here in State College, Centre County, Pennsylvania to do is:

  1. Sing for us at noon at the bingo parlor at Addison Court, 120 East Beaver Avenue, State College. Addison Court is an independent residence for the elderly and disabled. There are 90 of us. Several of us could use cheering up. We do not get to hear a lot of live music. Dazzle us.
  2. Advocate for us. After Florida, Pennsylvania has more elderly residents than any other state in the union. Centre County is attracting large numbers of elderly residents who retire here. Yet the music venues in Downtown State College are closed to us because Downtown businessmen do not think it is worth their while to provide access so people using canes, wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, and power chairs can listen to live music.
  3. Meanwhile, you could do a lot to increase opportunities for elderly and disabled residents of my town.
  4. Come on by. Use your wealth to buy a front-wheel drive
  • or an Amigo real wheel drive
  • or a Pride Power Chair

See Amigo and Pride webpages for more details:

Here in State College you can purchase these and similar products at T and B Medical

  • or Dick’s Homecare

Then drive around town and tell Marilyn Tavenner, (as of December 2011, not yet confirmed), Acting Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services what it feels like to use mobility equipment to get around and then to get stuck.

“I’m your biggest fan/ I’ll follow you until you love me/”


Note: Here at Addison Court, we still have a candle lit to guide Lady Gaga to our bingo parlor.

Second Life: Virtual World Special

John J. Meier, science and math librarian at Penn State, and guest blogger
Editorial note: Of course what everyone wants to know these days is what effect will  Zynga have on Second Life? (Readers are encouraged to provide answers.) What follows is a guest blog by John J. Meier,  assistant librarian at Penn State‘s Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library providing background on Second LifeThis originally appeared in Voices of Central Pennsylvania with the title, “PSU’s Second Life Encourages Students to Get One.” 
When I was trying to get a better understanding of the effectiveness of Sonali Kumar’s 3-D model of Blueroof Housing for disabled and elderly individuals, John introduced me to Second Life as a quick and free way of being immersed in a virtual world through the use of an avatar who shares this world with millions of avatars controlled by millions of globally immersed participants. Psychologists and human resources specialists use one of Penn State‘s islands in Second Life‘s 3-D universe to provide counseling to students in emotional distress.
This avatar is Speedy Przhevalsky.
Second Life his name is Polish
Speedy is getting ready to change his appearance. I once spent two days trying to decide among a startling number of options regarding the size and shape of his ears, nose, eyes and so on until there was too much to decide and I decided to send him off to walk, run, fly, explore, buy, create, receive virtual therapy, and eventually convince me that he is more real than I am. 
Second Life’s Virtual World Includes a Detailed Alternate Reality at Penn State
John J Meier, Science Librarian, Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library at Penn State
The future has made a great deal of promises, mostly through the voice of science fiction films and books, but we have yet to see flying cars or man on mars or The Matrix.  Or maybe we do have that last one after all.  In the eponymous film, The Matrix was a fictional world generated by computers, a virtual reality where every living person existed and some could fly and dodge bullets.  There is actually a computer generated virtual world where anyone CAN fly and interact with other people in another Earth, it is Second Life.
Second Life is a computer program, available for free download, which allows anyone to enter and interact in the virtual world of Second Life via broadband Internet access.  Unlike some online worlds, such as the popular World of Warcraft, Second Life has no monthly fees for the basic user.  The money used in-game, “Linden dollars,” can be purchased with real money and provides the company behind the game with a source of income.  They also lease the virtual real estate to individuals and organizations on a monthly basis.  You must be 18 years or older to play Second Life, though there is a Teen Second Life in a similar virtual world for 13-17 year old users.  Second Life has considerable “adult content,” which has areas specifically set aside in the game recently.
Each user sets up an avatar to use in the game, which is a representation of them in the game world.  These avatars are often human looking, but can be anything such as an animal or fantastic creature or even an inanimate object.  The avatar acts as the person controlling them:  conversing with other avatars by chat, sometimes known as instant messaging; walking, flying or teleporting around the virtual world; or interacting with other objects in the world, such as chairs or buildings.  Objects are created for the world by the users of the game and through a special programming language called the Linden Scripting Language. These objects can also move and operate on their own.  This allows for creation of items like cars, clothing with moving images, or almost anything imaginable.
While Second Life could be called a computer game, there is no winner or official goals.  Success is measured in some similar ways to real life, such as money and property as well as respect in the community.
Creativity is highly prized and since the cost of creation is mainly time, it is possible for anyone to be successful.  Interactions in the game can even be recorded as videos, which spread outside the game as movie shorts or music video remixes.  Since avatars can also be customized, the appearance of other users in itself reflects a dramatic diversity and can challenge the expectations of a novice user.  Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities, Second Life seems more like the real world than many other virtual worlds and online games.  Most avatars look human and objects are often those found in the real world at their normal scale.
Much of the real estate in Second Life is the property of organizations or companies, which often purchase one or more of the standard “island” sized properties.  They often use this land to create a virtual presence in the world as a way to engage customers, interest potential employees, or to conduct meetings and informational events.  In a global economy and worldwide commerce distance is often the limit, though it has no meaning in a virtual world where travel is instantaneous.
Penn State has a number of islands in second life: an island for the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), an island for the Penn State Berks Campus, an island for the Penn State World Campus and an island in Teen Second Life for the Penn State Admissions Office. 
Since almost any object can be created in second life for only the cost of time, it is often used to create a presence for a real institution or service.  It can also allow users from across the world to interact in a similar environment to the real world. Research projects in Second Life can also take advantage of the large-scale social and economic interactions going on between the millions of registered users.
Copyright © 2011 by John J. Meier

Segregation threatens your soul

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

“Trouble, trouble, I have had trouble all my days. / It seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave,” sang the great blues artist Bessie Smith. An African-American, Smith’s skin color put her in her grave, according to the authoritative American National Biography: “On 26 September 1937, with Richard Morgan at the wheel, her car collided with a truck, parked without lights on the roadside at Coahoma, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. Because of her skin color, she was refused admission in nearby hospitals and therefore had to be taken to an African-American hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi—over200 miles from the accident site. Never regaining consciousness, she died eight and a half hours after the time of the accident due to internal injuries and loss of blood.”

I am in the Corner Room having breakfast and staring at two photographs. The first is Elliott Erwitt’s 1950 photograph of a black man drinking from a segregated water fountain. Above his head is the sign “Colored.” To the left is another water fountain with the sign “White.” The white water fountain is refrigerated. The colored one is not.

When the photograph was taken, it was illegal for the black man to drink from the white fountain. If he had tried and been caught, the police would have arrested him and taken him to jail; he would have been tried, sentenced and imprisoned. In the segregated South, black men “who did not know their place” were lynched for less.

The second photograph is of the entrance to Ye Olde College Diner just up the street. Clearly, no human being in a wheel chair can enter even though we are celebrating this year the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) when the president said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” At the College Diner, across the street from Penn State, the shameful wall of exclusion remains.

Why this form of State College segregation remains is the subject of this column. I compare the State College Diner to my experiences during the Civil Rights Movement in the South where, in 1962, at the age of 14, I participated with two black ministers in a restaurant sit in at a bus terminal in Athens, Georgia. At the time I lived in Atlanta, where blacks and whites could not eat together in the same restaurant, sleep in the same hotel, go to the same bathrooms, attend the same schools, swim in the same pools, or marry each other. Integrated protestors were arrested for praying in white churches.

That year I attended the Ebenezer Baptist Church and watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach a sermon on the spiritual effects of injustice which apply to the owners and patrons of State College’s Diner. The following year I heard Dr. King at the March on Washington say, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’”

Laws are not the solutions to all our problems. The loophole in the ADA that permits the Diner to be inaccessible to the disabled relates to buildings constructed before the ADA went into effect. The law could be changed. But does it need to be changed? If the patrons of the restaurant realized the assault on the dignity of human beings who happen to be unable to walk, the loss of business would force the owners to construct what could be a relatively inexpensive ramp.

If the cost to the business endangers its survival, the community can contribute to the ramp. There could be bake sales at religious institutions. Grant proposals could be written. What is intolerable is the on-going assault to the dignity of those of us who are unable to walk, see, or hear—the assault perpetuated and tolerated by those of you able bodied people who do not realize segregation exists here and now.

Do we really need more laws to protect the disabled and elderly against the numerous daily forms of segregation you impose upon us? Didn’t God give you immortal souls and the injunction to do unto others as you would have others do unto you?

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]
or at

Post Script: This election season has been disappointing. It is useful to remember that if we treat each other as human beings we can avoid expensive and unnecessary legislation.

Nevertheless, we must prepare for the next election. A new organization, Disabled and Elderly Informed Voters for Equal Rights (DELIVER), will endorse candidates and support legislation. Voices of Central Pennsylvania and its columnists are not permitted to endorse candidates or legislation due to its nonprofit status.

Meanwhile, this column at Voices of Centrral Pennsylvania provides detailed information on disability and elderly issues not available elsewhere. Medical suppliers, rehabilitation counselors, and others must advertise in Voices. As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

Elliott’s Erwitt’s photograph of segregated drinking fountains in the US South is widely regarded as one of the best photographs of the Twentieth Century

Ask candidates their position on disabled, elderly voters

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

“Who will protect us against the protectors?” Plato (428-348 BC) asks. Over the years, in a variety of situations, it has become useful to question what happens when people put in charge of helping others help themselves.

The question came quickly to mind Aug. 5 when I arrived in my power chair at the Spats Restaurant on College Avenue only to realize that I could not enter because there was a series of stairs. The previous week marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) providing, among other things, wheelchair access to public accommodations. President George H. W. Bush said: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Here in State College, Pa., the shameful wall of exclusion continues in three prominent restaurants: Ye Olde College Diner, Baby’s, and Spats. They are exempted because they were constructed before the ADA went into effect. Today, access would be relatively easy because technology has developed attractive, low-cost ramps.

What makes my exclusion from Spats especially annoying is that the three people I was planning to see were disability professionals in town for a large autism conference—two of whom were reimbursed for the expense of their meals from their school’s budget on special education (that is, education for the disabled) and one of whom, an independent contractor with an autism patient who also has a physical disability, will be deducting the cost from her income tax.

There is arrogance here, especially profound because three individuals who are paid to help people in the disability community are unaware that it is immoral to patronize an establishment where disabled people cannot go. Imagine: when I was in the Civil Rights Movement and picketed a segregated whites only rrestaurant if I left the picket line and had lunch in the same restaurant I was picketing.

Only my insensitive disability workers did worse than that. They ate for free on subsidies paid for by federal and state funds—subsidies intended for the disabled. The federal tax code should be changed to prohibit deductions for otherwise legitimate expenses if the expenses are incurred in a restaurant that denies access to the disabled. The legislation might include a provision providing tax breaks when ramps are added to an establishment.

This is the first of my three-part series on candidates committed to bettering the lives of elderly and disabled voters here in Centre County or risk losing my personal endorsement. I am requesting that: Republican Rep. Glenn (“GT”) Thompson, the only candidate for federal office who as a physical therapist actually touched and helped heal disabled patients, promptly introduce legislation prohibiting tax deductions for disability professionals who purchase goods and services in non-accessible businesses.

Mike Pipe,T h o m p s o n ’s D e m o c r a t i c opponent, a former high level official in the Obama campaign and someone eager to prove that eventually the president will live up to his campaign promise(recorded on You Tube) to improve the lives of people with disabilities, request that the Obama Administration have the president sign an executive order prohibiting that federal funding for schools be used to reimburse special education teachers and others who incur expenses in non-accessible facilities. After all, Pipe agreed that Obama hasn’t lived up to his disability promises.

 Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, who has been extremely helpful to constituents whose ability to breathe was being threatened by Obama Administration cutbacks in Medicare, use the powers of your current office in Congress to introduce legislation to ensure that our nation’s schools do not continue to subsidize discrimination.

Pat Toomey, the Lehigh-Valley-based Republican candidate for Senate, communicate. What are your views on Medicare, the controversial recess appointment of the new administrator of Medicare (an appointment whereby the president avoided Senate confirmation), and on the effects of competitive bidding on State College suppliers of oxygen, wheel chairs, and power chairs? In August, Toomey was 6 points ahead in polls that are unreliable because Nov. 2 is so far away. Centre County voted for Obama in the last presidential election and for Bush four years earlier. Toomey will answer.

Despite the fact that I am an Eleanor Roosevelt Democrat, the Obama Administration has done short-term damage to the disabled and elderly (especially those of us who are poor) that will have long-lasting negative effects, forcing people into expensive assistive living homes and needlessly robbing us of our independence.

I am focusing on candidates for federal office because the winner will vote on appropriations for Medicare and for medical equipment, may have direct oversight over Medicare and federal Medicaid policies, and will be dealing daily with Medicare and Social Security issues through constituent services offices. May the best man win regardless of political party.

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]. See This columnist would dearly appreciate the pro bono services of an attorney specializing in ADA and Medicare issues. Voices of Central Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 organization and as such does not endorse legislation. The views expressed here are solely those of the columnist.

Only revolution will liberate the disabled and elderly

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

I have been trying to shield my readers (until the appropriate time, like now) from the clear purpose of this monthly column: To foment a peaceful revolution that will hereafter change forever the daily lives of individuals with disabilities and those who are aged. Miriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines revolution as “a fundamental change in political organization; esp.: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.”

Non-violent revolution is the way we behave as a nation when fundamental change is required. Anyone who has observed or participated in two of the great revolutions in my lifetime—the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement—knows that the ballot box is the ultimate arbiter of who governs whom. For this year’s election it is necessary to get our elected officials to understand that those of us who cannot walk, see, or hear or who have elderly bodies demand a new kind of government – a government that (given our demographics) will enfranchise us as a movement capable of determining current and future elections.

The problem with a column like this is that it risks a stridency too great to take seriously. People with disabilities such as mine are lucky to live here. State College and Penn State are more wheelchair accessible than any place else I have lived in the 15 years I have been disabled. Central Pennsylvania, especially the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), has provided me with a better array of social services than anyplace else I have lived, including North Carolina, California, Virginia (by reputation, when I was applying to George Mason University) and suburban Philadelphia (which was awful).

I had wanted to write this column as a tribute to my OVR counselor Carla Roser who retired last month. Carla was too modest to consent to an interview, one that would have focused on what made her especially effective and why Central Pennsylvania’s OVR offices, based in Altoona, are so much more efficient than the rest of the Commonwealth and most of the country.

Praise aside, good is not good enough. Happy Valley and its environs may be better than most, but what this area and the nation lacks is a clear understanding of what disabled and elderly individuals need, why we must organize and vote as a bloc, how we should be the people who govern our lives—the principle of self-government is self-government—and why colonial rule (over disability and elderly groups and institutions) must end. The colonials are often kind-hearted-souls who are not disabled or elderly. Some, however, have behaved with a sense of noblesse oblige reminiscent of 19th century European colonialism.

My columns, including what it is like to have a disability, assistive technology for people who are blind and what it is like to travel with a disability, will continue to serve as groundwork. Do not be lulled into
thinking that a seemingly gentle column is not part of a clearly stated intention that you understand what kind of power we need and how we must work to get it.

Meanwhile, readers interested in how my thoughts are developing regarding the disability and elderly rights movement are urged to read Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography Lyndon Johnson,
Master of the Senate,  for background on how our 36th president obtained the power to create the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.

I also refer you to Taylor Branch’s astonishingly well-written and detailed trilogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, a trilogy that describes how Dr.King used clear strategy to overcome.

Meanwhile, this columnist must exercise some restraint. My original intent for this summer was to list 10 things that need doing in Centre County so we know who our friends are, whom we need to vote out of office, where we need to picket and what we need to boycott.

Instead, I am simply requesting all candidates on the ballot here in State College, regardless of office or party, provide me with a written pledge that they will:

1) Only appear at political events or campaign locations that are wheelchair accessible

2) Use rudimentary Braille (inexpensive) located in a clearly identified location

3) Provide clear (but not necessarily expensive) signage and sign language and other interpreters when practical

Candidates, please send a copy of your pledges to the email address below. September and October issues of this column will list candidates providing pledges and provide comments on those who fail to reply.

Joel Solkoff wrote The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected].

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]

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.