Building on Ability

A person in a wheelchair with checkered sneakers, a blue gown and purple glovesAccording to the United Nations, nearly one billion people globally live with some sort of disability, and this group has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of access to health care and education.

The University of Pittsburgh has long been working on improvements in technology and policy that will in turn improve the daily lives of those who live with disabilities. So, this year, to mark the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pittwire collected a roundup of noteworthy Pitt initiatives and research by and for people with disabilities.

“As a community, we must continue to promote and prioritize accessibility for people with disabilities. And we must continue working together to create an academic environment that is not just world-class, but is also welcoming and inclusive to all people,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher during a November virtual event marking the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For more information on how the University can help with student, faculty and staff disability needs, visit the Office of Disability Resources and Services website.

Awards of note

This fall, Pitt was selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help advance research and education programs that address critical transportation challenges. Pitt researchers led by Rory Cooper will study the implications of accessible automated vehicles and mobility services for people with disabilities.

Also this fall, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to investigate a new health coverage policy for custom manual and power wheelchairs for people with disabilities to improve their ability to live and participate in their communities. The research is being led by Mark Schmeler, vice chair for education and training in the school’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology.

The National Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Family celebrated its first year since Pitt and UPMC were selected for a five-year, $4.3 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research to establish the center, which aims to improve the care, health and quality of life of all persons with disabilities and the families and caregivers who support them. In July, the center released a report on the difficulties of caregiving throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pitt people at work

Earlier this year, Pitt Magazine featured alumna Annie Kaitlyn Caulfield, resident prosthetist at Walter Reed, and how new prosthetic limbs are created for military veterans by researchers in Pitt’s Prosthetics and Orthopedics Program.

In May, inventor and assistive technology researcher Rory Cooper completed a virtual Pittsburgh Marathon, only months after suffering a life-threatening crash during another hand-cycling race in Washington, D.C. Along with his research triumphs in the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Cooper is also a former Paralympian and frequently competes in wheelchair and handcycling races. Among many other accolades, this December, Rory Cooper was named Pitt’s first-ever assistant vice chancellor for research for STEM-Health Sciences Collaborations. As director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Cooper’s research focuses on technological improvements for people who live with disabilities, including wheelchair and prosthetic enhancements.

The Pitt News in November 2019 featured Heather Tomko, a graduate student and research assistant at Pitt’s School of Public Health, who is advocating for accessibility in the city of Pittsburgh. Tomko’s work has garnered multiple awards for her, including Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2018.

Events of impact

In July, the offices of Diversity and Inclusion and Health Sciences Diversity hosted a town hall to raise awareness of some of the greatest barriers to people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic—and what needs to be done to alleviate these challenges.

Pitt’s Office of Human Resources reported success from its annual Disability Mentoring Day, which took place virtually in October. Participants included 29 employers and more than 700 total students. They came from the city of Pittsburgh; Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties; and 40 school districts.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted two panel discussions, “NDEAM at 75: Employment of People with Disabilities—Progress to Date and Future Directions” and “Pitt Perspectives on Employment for Individuals with Disabilities: The Importance of Employer Practices and Workplace Climate.” Both panels addressed the challenges people with disabilities face every day in the workplace.