Enabling Work

July 15, 2007
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For Kenneth Walsh, president and founder of commercial construction and demolition firm Walsh Construction, the start of summer brings with it a painful anniversary. It was six years ago on June 15 that a structural beam fell on him at a job site and crushed a segment of his spinal cord.

"I wasn't paying attention," Walsh recalled. "I was handing out paychecks and the beam fell on me."

Today, the wheelchair-bound Walsh is able to enjoy many of the things he took for granted prior to the accident — but it hasn't been easy.

"You find pretty quickly that nothing works," Walsh said. "All these little things you have to rig up — nothing is designed for a wheelchair: desk drawers, the buttons on the copy machine, things you never would think about. It's really an ongoing process."

Many of the solutions that enable the 11.8 million working-age Americans with a severe disability to go about their days are entrepreneurial in nature, requiring tinkering and customization. Other solutions that help disabled workers adapt use the latest consumer electronics.

For Walsh, a golf cart and handicap-accessible deer blind allowed him to continue hunting. His office manager attacked Walsh's travel gear with the same gusto he used to customize their west-side shop, creating a wheelchair trailer and fabricating a suitcase shower chair (models currently on the market were either too large or too flimsy). In lieu of a desk, he uses a long, low table with rows of paper trays instead of drawers. The legs on the drafting and blueprint tables have been knocked down a foot. Through a program of the Kentwood Parks and Recreation Department, he can even water ski.

Walsh's most difficult challenge has been in making his job sites accessible.

"It was just killing me," Walsh said. "My expertise was in the field, not in the office."

There isn't much room for the handicapped in demolition, sandblasting and asbestos removal — the core offerings of Walsh's 18-year-old firm. And while he did not expect to be wielding a sledge hammer or tearing up floors, Walsh still needed to be onsite to effectively run his business. Above all else, he needed to see what was being demolished in order to make an accurate bid. His workers initially took pictures of areas inaccessible to him. This proved problematic.

"By the time I saw them, I would start asking questions, looking at things structurally: Was that a load-bearing wall? Is that plaster on the brick wall? Are there three levels of floor tiles beneath the carpet? Dumb things that you need to know to put in an accurate price."

More pictures would be taken, or Walsh would be carried to the area in question, a confounding experience either way. Walsh was also frustrated by his vehicle, a sedan that was customized for the paraplegic by routing the floor controls to hand levers. Even if it could be driven through the roughshod construction zone, the wheelchair filled the entire back seat, leaving no room for transporting construction materials. When something was needed on the site, someone else would have to drive a truck out there, while he was forced to stay in the office.

What Walsh needed, he knew, was a way to see the inside of a job site in real time, and a truck that could store his wheelchair somewhere other than its truck bed, which would defeat its purpose.

"We usually discourage pick-up trucks," said Jerry Bouman, driver rehabilitation specialist for Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. "They're too high. A standard seat on a pick-up or SUV is 30 inches, a wheelchair is 22 inches. You're going uphill a minimum of eight inches."

Nonetheless, Mary Free Bed does outfit pick-up trucks. But generally, the wheelchair lift system is housed in the truck bed, something Walsh wanted to avoid when he returned to the rehabilitation center last year. He had spent two months there when he first had the accident.

"He had the business and was in a hurry to get back to work," Bouman recalled. "He came back, said the car is great, but it didn't work well for his job."

In partnership with Michigan Rehabilitation Services and Grand Rapids handicap-vehicle-system fabricator Clock Conversions, an extended cab Chevrolet Silverado 2500 was customized to provide Walsh the truck he needed. The mechanical wheelchair system folds into the backseat of the cab, keeping the truck bed free for normal use. A separate hoist allows Walsh to climb into the drivers' seat.

To solve his bidding problem, a video-relay system was created that allowed Walsh to take virtual tours of inaccessible job sites. Through this, Walsh uses a walkie-talkie to direct a worker on the interior with a Web cam, allowing him to see the site in real time. Only a few short years ago, this would not have been possible, as it requires a level of Internet connectivity that was not readily available.

Medical advances are exponentially increasing the likelihood of surviving a catastrophic injury, according to Sister Kathryn Mullarkey, Mary Free Bed director of technology. These cases are as diverse as the medical conditions and personal situations of the afflicted, but parallel advances in technology have allowed patients to increasingly maintain their careers and lifestyle after an injury.

"We're getting more people who are really tech savvy and challenge us to put the pieces together for them," Mullarkey said. "The sky is the limit. It all depends on the funding sources and what the technology can provide."

This could mean creating a "smart home" with automated functions and remote workplace access that can be operated through voice commands or a puffer-tube-control system by a quadriplegic. Or it could be a situation like that of Judith Claytor. Complications following a 2005 automobile accident gave the 59-year-old Grand Rapids nurse and educator a unique form of brain damage, allowing her to function for the most part normally, but crippling higher level cognitive functions that require focus and organization.

"They call it executive function," Claytor explained. "It can be very frustrating, because the rest of my brain works quite well, and people see this and expect you to behave like everyone else."

The condition is something of a super-charged version of Attention Deficit Disorder. Claytor would begin working on a task, become distracted, and forget the original task altogether. Punctuality became nearly impossible. As she is currently looking for new employment, these vulnerabilities create significant barriers.

Earlier this year, Claytor began building her day around electronic aids with the help of Mary Free Bed counselors. She records discussion topics and stray thoughts on a hand-held digital recorder that she can later reference. Appointments, reminders and to-do lists are entered into her Palm Treo Smartphone, complete with alarms. To keep her from drifting off, she carries a timing device called an Invisible Clock that alerts her to do various tasks at pre-determined times each day, and also goes off at regular intervals just to mark the passing of time.

"At one level, it's a blessing not to have had everything with my brain go haywire, but it's limiting because this is something people think you should be able to deal with," Claytor said. "You have to have some strategies to deal with it, and you have to know what help is available. Finding this technology has just been an amazing experience."     HQ

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