Pitt Professor Takes on Policy Challenges for People with Disabilities

A person in a blue dress shirt and khaki pants speaking to four visible people in wheelchairsMark Schmeler is facing down a challenge that has long loomed in Pittsburgh, even after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990.

Schmeler, associate professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, recently began his tenure on the City-County Task Force on Disability, nominated by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. He will focus on unconscious bias toward people with disabilities as reflected by poor policies or policies that are not well-interpreted or enforced.

“This will hopefully pave the way for Pittsburgh residents who face everyday challenges with disabilities to have improved lives,” said Schmeler, who is also vice chair for education and training in the school’s Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology. “The mayor is familiar with our work related to assistive technology education, research, clinical, policy and advocacy.” 

And a Pitt-led initiative should help.

The School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences recently 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.

“It’s basically a first-of-its-kind grant to look at health policy on how wheelchairs are covered by insurance,” said Schmeler. “The way these devices have been paid for by insurance, such as Medicare, they have had terrible coverage policies over the years.”

Schmeler points to late-night advertisements that tout scooters over wheelchairs as an example, which doctors and lawmakers over the years have said created a false impression that scooters are a convenient means of transportation, rather than a medical necessity.

Medicare, in response, “made it impossible” for people to get wheelchairs, Schmeler said.

“Medicare decided wheelchairs would only be paid for if they were only used inside someone’s house and you could only get certain wheelchairs if you had a neurological diagnosis, which not everybody has to have for wheelchair use,” he said. “This created a difficult situation and we have had a challenging time getting that resolved.”

A man in a blue jacket and jeans in a wheelchair and a person in a gray shirt and jeans kneeling next to himOne person who can attest to these kinds of problems for persons with disabilities is Jonathan Duvall, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh in the Human Engineering Research Laboratories.

Duvall has been using a wheelchair since 2007 when he was involved in a sledding accident. His wheelchair offers features such as a tilting function to relieve pressure from his legs and a seat elevator to allow the chair to raise for him to reach for items.

“Typically, insurance doesn’t cover these features, because they consider that a luxury feature that isn’t medically necessary,” Duvall said. “They’re used, however, to transfer from my bed to my chair or from my chair to my shower, so they are necessary.”

Duvall’s scholarly work focuses on improving mobility for persons with disabilities, from establishing new ways to detect the roughness of a sidewalk to inventing a simpler way for people who use wheelchairs to weigh themselves. He recently published research in the journal Disability & Rehabilitation–Assistive Technology, where he and a team of researchers designed an adjustable wheelchair for table tennis participation.

“A lot of times, from what I’ve seen, it pops up that new policies don’t seem to affect persons with disabilities, but they actually do,” Duvall said. “For example, when bike lanes were being installed in Pittsburgh, accessible parking spots were being taken out and curb cuts became more difficult for wheelchair users to navigate.”

Schmeler said while improvements have been made in transportation and technology since the ADA’s passing, voices need to be heard from people with disabilities to have effective policy changes take place.

“The ADA is only 30 years old, and I say only because that’s not very long. Much more work needs to be done,” said Schmeler. “It took probably 20 years to pass this law, because the fear from the public was it would cost us a lot of money to make sidewalks and buildings more accessible.”

He hopes his new position on the task force will lead to better policy. Task force meetings are open to the public and broadcast on the city of Pittsburgh’s Government Access Channel.

“People with disabilities will hopefully start feeling more comfortable speaking out,” Schmeler said. “Then hopefully, we can move forward and society will realize how new policies can be positive and can actually save money instead of adding to costs.”