NJIT Senior Alejandra Lopez-Diaz Lands Merck R&D Internship to Work on Vaccines

Alejandra Lopex-Diaz working in lab with lab coat on smiling co-worker looking on

Biochemistry senior Alejandra Lopez- Diaz hasn’t wasted much time during her past three years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Outside of class, she’s spent most of her free hours inside the university’s labs researching an aspect of time itself—our circadian clock, or the internal biological clock that helps take us through various phases of the day from morning to night.

Her work has been helping the lab of her mentor, NJIT biochemistry professor Yong- Ick Kim, better understand the molecular mechanisms behind why we might experience jet lag when we fly to another time zone, and explore ways to treat such asynchrony between our body clock and the day/night cycle. But now, all the extra time she’s spent sharpening her lab skills and gaining research experience seem to be paying off in another way. This month, she’s set to intern with Merck, where she’ll be aiding in vaccine research for the pharmaceutical giant’s Analytical Research and Development Department.

“I’ve been in school so long, so now it will be great to have the chance to evolve in a professional environment with Merck,” said Diaz. “Merck is allowing me to intern virtually to start, and I don’t know exactly what to expect yet, but I’m really excited to begin learning from their experts and become a specialist in some of the advanced techniques and equipment they are applying for vaccine research.” While Diaz will begin assisting Merck’s R&D efforts from the convenience of her home in Phillipsburg, N.J., the opportunity to do so arose from a career-changing event for her that took place out of state last year. Diaz identifies with having major depressive disorder, attention deficit disorder and dyscalculia.

She flew out to Chicago last year for one of the world’s largest annual disability inclusion events, the 2019 Disability:IN Annual Conference & Expo. The event attracts thousands of young professionals, corporate leaders and disability experts interested in learning about the latest in accessible tech and workplace trends, as well as recruitment and career opportunities. There, she got the chance to make an impression with some of the country’s top employers looking for young talent with experience in biochemical research—employers like Merck.

NJIT Senior Alejandra Lopez-Diaz Lands Merck R&D Internship to Work on Vaccines “Disability-inclusive companies, like Merck, take the opportunity at the conference to interview aspiring professionals to see if we may be a fit for their companies,” said Diaz. “I interviewed with them, and two days later they called me and asked me to join their internship program.” Finding a Research Rhythm at NJIT Diaz credits the recent success in good part to her training in Kim’s lab, exploring the circadian clock of a simple organism, cyanobacteria— commonly recognized as blue-green algae—to better understand how the circadian rhythm of an organism’s function is affected by changing environmental conditions. She’s been experimenting with a specific protein, KaiC, which along with two other proteins, KaiA and KaiB, act as the cyanobacteria’s internal clock. KaiC resonates a signal, or oscillation, every 12 hours—forming the circadian rhythm of the cyanobacteria through interactions with KaiA and KaiB. “My project was to express a mutant KaiC gene from a strain of cyanobacteria called S. elongatus.

I’m studying how a change in an amino acid in a domain of KaiC that acts like an on-off switch for the internal clock, called the A-loop, might change functionality and the oscillation signal,” said Diaz. “If we can understand how this process works in simple organisms or how it can be manipulated, we might be able to understand how more complex clocks work, like our own.” While she’s learned a lot in the lab as a student, she’s also learned nearly as much as a teacher herself this semester. Through a pilot program at NJIT, Students 2 Science (S2S), Diaz has joined other college-level researchers and professional scientists giving advanced, handson instruction to Newark Public School students in a commercial lab environment in downtown Newark. The program opened the doors to its Newark S2S Technology Center in 2018, and since then companies, such as ThermoFisher Scientific, Bayer and Merck, have helped support the organization by donating cuttingedge research equipment, corporate volunteers and mentors, allowing Diaz and others to educate students in everything from botany and biotechnology, to the latest in chromatography and spectroscopy.

“This is a great program that trains NJIT students as teachers and has improved my soft skills a lot, but it also let me get give back to the community just a couple blocks from the university,” said Diaz. “It’s amazing—some of the instruments and equipment the kids are learning with are as sophisticated as anything you’d find at NJIT.” Every Monday this semester, Diaz had met up to instruct Newark’s young students. Despite the recent school closures, she’s found a way to keep volunteering.

“Now, myself and two other NJIT studentvolunteers are creating virtual lectures with experiments that the kids can do at home,” said Diaz. “The next one we’re hoping to do is a lecture series teaching them the science of sound. I’m still trying to connect with this program and get kids excited about science.” Though her NJIT research may be temporarily put on hold due to the COVID-19 protocols, Diaz says she’s ready to use the impressive skillset she’s already honed under Kim’s mentorship specifically as her platform to grow and succeed with Merck this summer. “I’ve learned how to modify PCR protocols, perform DNA transformations, find and use restriction enzymes and learn how to read bands on electrophoresis gels, and practice safe and proper usage of instruments,” said Diaz. “These skill sets add up … I can’t thank Dr. Yong-Ick Kim enough for teaching me how to do these things and giving me enough independence and room for creativity to grow as a scientist.” research.njit.edu

Target, Disney Expand Costume Options For Those With Special Needs

tow children pose in their disability-friendly costumes provided by Target

With Halloween fast approaching, some major retailers are dramatically expanding the costume choices for kids and adults with disabilities.

Target and Disney are introducing a slew of new costumes with special accessibility features such as open backs to make dressing easier, hidden openings for abdominal access and wheelchair-friendly fits.

Target is doubling its collection of adaptive costumes — which were first released last year — with more choices and by including offerings in adult sizes in addition to children’s.

“Whether you’re simply getting dressed every day or dressing up for special moments like Halloween, everyone deserves to feel included and celebrated,” said Julie Guggemos, Target’s senior vice president and chief design officer. “And at Target, we know that great, inclusive design makes all the difference.”

Target’s adaptive costumes range from $20 to $35 and are available on the retailer’s website.

Continue on to Disability Scoop to read the complete article.

He Designed a Mountain Bike To Bring Adventure Back to People With Disabilities – Like Himself

disabled woman sitting on a custom mountain bike wearing a helmet

When a snowboarding accident resulting in a spinal injury sidelined him from his beloved outdoor pursuits, Christian Bagg was determined to climb back up the mountain.

“I just wanted to go outside with my friends and not have them worry or wait for me,” Bagg says. “I just wanted to have fun with them, I just wanted to blend [in].”

Bagg started out by designing wheelchairs that offered greater versatility than traditional models. He then turned his attentions to creating a line of purpose-built bikes for people with physical limitations.

The learning curve eventually brought him to the bike’s current incarnation, the Bowhead Reach. With its main wheel located in the rear, heavy-tread tires, and a powerful electric motor, the souped-up reverse tricycle can go pretty much anywhere.

The all-terrain recumbent bike comes in three models: a recreational model for everyday adventuring; a performance model for true adrenaline junkies, and the explorer mode, a push variation that allows for partnered assistance as needed.

There’s even a special package to adapt the bikes for use by quadriplegics.

One of Bagg’s first customers was J.P. Middleton, a volunteer firefighter and primary care paramedic who, like Bagg, had suffered a life-altering spinal cord injury while skiing in 2018.   

One day, as he was visiting with his dad outside the rehab hospital, someone on an outlandish bike shot by them. “It was this Mad Max looking vehicle,” Middleton said to Global News. “When I saw this bike, I was like, ‘I gotta get myself one of these things…’ It was a ray of hope for me.”

Middleton credits the bike with giving him a big chunk of his life back. He also gets a kick out of the awestruck looks he gets from passersby. “This [bike] will turn more heads than a Lamborghini,” he joked.

Continue on to the Good News Network to read the complete article.

Technology to Help Those with Disabilities Work from Home

Young woman viewing telecheck on computer

By Sarah Botterill

Due to COVID-19, many people are now working from home. It’s a challenge for everyone but can present additional barriers if you have a disability or a long-term health condition. Employers and employees need to collaborate. Homeworking is often more inclusive if you consider everyone’s needs.

There are ways the environment and technology can be adjusted to help all types of disabilities, with tips for anyone with a visual impairment, neurodivergent workers, those with cognitive impairments, as well as physical and hearing impairments.

It’s a legal requirement for employers to adapt to the needs of workers with disabilities. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments to support job applicants and employees with disabilities.

Reasonable adjustments means that you aim to reduce as many potential barriers as possible. Where people are working at home, you need to consider the individual’s needs.

Here are some tips:

  1. Find out about your employee’s specific needs

You may already know employees who have particular needs. However, you may not, and some may come to light that you were previously unaware of during this crisis.

AbilityNet’s online tool can help you, and your employees identify the needs to make reasonable adjustments to the workspace.

  1. Ask employees with disabilities to help you

It’s society that disables. People with disabilities face challenges that others don’t every day and are often fantastic innovators. So, if you’re wrestling with an accessibility issue or something that’ll help everyone, they’re the best people to ask.

Take Haben Girma, for example. The deaf-blind Harvard Law graduate spoke eloquently about a job working in a gym at TechShare Pro 2019. One of the clients was struggling to turn on a machine and couldn’t make it operate.

Haben went in and felt her way around the machine and found the button that fixed it. As Haben tells it, the delighted customer quipped how fantastic it was and that she “hadn’t seen the button.” Haben’s reply, “Neither did I.”

  1. Remote communications

Many employers will be looking for new ways of communicating remotely with employees. There are many options available, and you must consider disabled people when you’re deciding how to communicate.

Do platforms work for people with visual- or hearing impairments, for example?

Video-conferencing platform Zoom is a simple to use platform for video calling. You can add closed captions to the video-conferencing system for the Deaf and hearing-impaired, or embed a third-party captioning service.

Other options are available for collaborating, including MS Teams, which also enables you to set-up a video call. You can also set up video conferencing with background blur. This feature was developed by a `Microsoft employee who would lip-read during calls but was struggling because of background interference.

Teams also include an Immersive Reader. Features include the ability to read text aloud.

  1. Adapting your physical workspace

Physical needs are varied and may relate to using a computer, or setting up a workspace. For example, some people may not be able to use a mouse at all or for long periods.

In this instance, voice dictation might be useful. Adjustments include the use of dictation and/or text-to-speech software.

You can find out more about using dictation with AbilityNet’s FREE online tool, My Computer My Way.

While this link is for Windows 10, My Computer My Way has dictation tips for all operating systems including Apple and Google Chromebook.

  1. Makeshift sit-stand desk

Some employees may find it uncomfortable to sit for long periods. In the office, they may have access to a sit-stand desk. If it’s not possible to get a sit-stand desk to employees in extreme times, then an ironing board could fit the bill. Ironing boards have adjustable heights, and you can raise it as a standing desk.

  1. Neurodiversity and homeworking

You may have neurodivergent workers in your workforce. Neurodiversity is a term that refers to where the brain works differently from others and covers a broad range of people, including those living with ADHD, Autism, Bipolar and Dyslexia.

How we’re communicating is changing, and there may be more online and telephone communication than usual, which can present particular difficulties for the neurodivergent community. It’s easier to miss social signals and to misinterpret.

Conversely, online and telephone communication is also preferable for some people

You’ll need to provide extra support, and recognize that the neurodivergent community, notably people with ADHD, may be more prone to anxiety than others.

  1. Regular breaks and routines

For some, it can be harder to take a break when you’re working at home. For those with specific disabilities, MS (Multiple Sclerosis), for example, fatigue is a genuine concern.

As an employer, stress the importance of regular breaks.

There are apps out there that encourage taking a break:

  • The Pomodoro Technique is a study/work practice that says to work for 25 minutes at a time, with a short break in between and a more extended break after four cycles (or pomodoros— Italian for tomato).
  • Big Stretch Reminder is a free break reminder tool for Windows computers. It prompts the user to take regular breaks with different options on how intrusive the messages are.
  • Stretchly is another app that reminds you to take a break when working with your computer. Stretchly is customizable and can provide instructions on what to do with your breaks, whether it takes up the full screen and how often breaks occur.

AbilityNet has published a list of apps, which will remind you to take a break. You’ll also find tips for ergonomic adjustments if you’re living with MS.

  1. Tips for repetitive strain injury

Good posture is vital for all workers, but especially if you have RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).

Employees may have had special equipment in the workplace they’ve been unable to transport home such as monitor stands, and ergonomic keyboards. If you can replace them at home, then do, but it might not be immediately possible.

There are, however, some things you can do. For example, instead of a monitor stand get a stack of robust books to raise your monitor to the correct height.

The right height is to position the top of the screen at or slightly below eye-level. Books can also double up as a makeshift footrest to reduce thigh strain.

  1. Keeping organized

Some employees may have worked at home before; others won’t. For some disabled people, this will be more challenging than others.

Employees with dyslexia may find organizing themselves challenging, for example. Encourage people to make a simple list of tasks at the beginning of the day.

Mind mapping software is an excellent way of organizing everything, from tasks to difficult thoughts and emotions. The good news is that there’s a lot of it that’s freely available.

Some options include Mind Node and XMind. We also have first-hand tech hacks for dyslexia.

  1. Emergency help

People working at home will be going out to buy essentials. Typical environments, such as supermarkets and drugstores, are busier than useful. The Emergency Chat App designed for someone having an autistic meltdown. In such situations, talking can become impossible because speech becomes non-functional for a while, even after the person has recovered. In addition, any kind of physical touch is often uncomfortable for the person experiencing the meltdown. But with the Emergency Chat App, the person in distress can bring up a pre-determined message on their phone for those around them. The message would then explain what is happening and what they need.

Source: ability.net

Wounded Army Corporal Inspires Boston’s Wounded Vet Run

Vincent Mannion-Brodeur in his army uniform on the field

By Kellie Speed

When Jeff and Maura Brodeur received the devastating call that would change their life forever— that their only son had been critically injured in Iraq and may not make it—they never could have imagined how far he would come today.

U.S. Army Private Vincent Mannion-Brodeur was just 19 when he was deployed to Iraq where he served as a Parachute Infantryman in the B-2-505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division and Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Honor Guard.

On March 11, 2007, the Massachusetts native was checking a house for insurgents when an improvised explosive device detonated, killing his sergeant and leaving him with deep shrapnel wounds that ravaged his upper torso. In addition, his left arm was nearly blown off and he sustained a traumatic brain injury that required the removal of his cranium and part of his frontal lobe.

As a courageous recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Vincent, who retired as a corporal, became the inspiration behind Boston’s Wounded Vet Run, a motorcycle run that honors wounded veterans of New England.

“Ten years ago, Vincent was the first recipient of the Boston Wounded Vet Run, which was used to supplement a VA Special Adaptive Housing Grant he earned that took two years of paperwork to complete,” said Jeff Brodeur, Vincent’s father and an Army veteran himself, adding that Vincent will be honored once again this year at the tenth annual Boston’s Wounded Vet Run being held in September.

Vincent Mannion-Brodeur holding an award
Vincent Mannion-Brodeur holding an award

“He was in a wheelchair at the time so we used that money to put in new stairs and a new walkway. We used the funds raised to make modifications for accessibility to the outside of our home. It’s really nice to have him being honored again on the run 10 years later because it all started with Vincent and Andy (Biggio) who is the founder.”

Since Boston’s initial event a decade ago, the motorcycle runs have increased in popularity, now becoming available in major cities nationwide raising money to provide assistance to severely wounded veterans like Vincent to improve their quality of life. All proceeds from the runs go directly to veterans to assist with housing modifications or mobility and transportation needs, including wheelchairs and cars, along with other basic requirements.

After surviving a yearlong coma, lengthy hospital stays, 47 surgeries and years of rehabilitation to relearn the simplest of tasks—from walking and talking to eating and showering—Vincent and his family have become an inspiration. Overcoming all odds after being told he might never be able to walk or talk again, Vincent, who can often be found smiling, saying, “God bless America,” still faces lifelong daily challenges but that hasn’t broken his fun-loving spirit.

His parents, who are both veterans, fought successfully to become the first on the East Coast—and one of the first families in the nation—to have their son transferred to a private medical facility to continue his care, paving the way for many other wounded soldiers.

Vincent Mannion-Brodeur holding an award with his doctor
Vincent Mannion-Brodeur holding an award with his doctor

The Veterans Administration initially wanted to transfer Vincent to its Tampa trauma facility but his parents were concerned over the level of care he would receive. “Boston has some of the best hospitals in the nation and we won approval for Vincent to receive private care for his severe TBI at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital instead of having to go to a Veterans Administration facility,” said Jeff, an Army veteran and also the National President of the Korean War Veteran’s Association. “The polytrauma hospitals back then didn’t offer the specialized care that we knew Boston could provide.”

Their steadfast determination in finding the best care and rehabilitation for their son paved the way for the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, authorizing the Veterans Administration to, “establish a wide range of new services to support certain caregivers of eligible Post 9/11 Veterans.” The additional benefits offered to families of veterans now include a monthly stipend, health care coverage, and travel expenses (including lodging and per diem) while accompanying veterans undergoing care, respite care and mental health services and counseling.

Unifying Us All to End Bullying

Charles Colin standing hands in pocket looking over shoulder

Sixteen-year-old Charles Kolin is spearheading the effort to create a formal resolution by Congress to support Unity Day, celebrated each year in late October (this year on Wednesday, October 23) to honor and recognize the annual anti-bullying prevention day formally on a national level.

Kolin singlehandedly set out to contact Senators and Representatives in Congress directly to lobby them to help put this resolution, which he drafted himself, on the books. His Unity Day resolution includes the goal of bringing together youth, parents, educators, businesses and community members across the country to emphasize a message of uniting for kindness, acceptance, inclusion and mutual respect.

Kolin has a Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD) that includes having difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language, and impaired visual spatial and social skills. Kolin prefers to think of himself as part of a “neurodiverse” community, rather than having a disability. His NVLD made him different to other students, and this caused him to be bullied from 5th grade to 8th grade. Because he’s experienced bullying firsthand, it’s his mission to help create a world where no one is afraid to share their opinions and where being different is okay.

Kolin spoke with DIVERSEability Magazine about his experiences and goals for the future:

DIVERSEability Magazine (DM): What were your experiences with bullying? How did you cope?

Charles Kolin (CK): My experience with bullying was not physical—it was all mental and emotional bullying. Some people will argue that there is no such thing as mental or emotional bullying, but I disagree.

I had 20 plus kids a day for 3 years tell me to go kill myself; they told me no one cared about me; why come to school I didn’t matter. Hearing those things every day of your life is bullying. The bullying began in 5th grade following my move from New York to Connecticut. The bullying continued until the end of 8th grade. My peers would go out of their way to say cruel and insensitive things to me.

During lunch, I wasn’t allowed to sit anywhere; they would ridicule me both in person, and behind my back. On the rare occasion I was actually invited somewhere, my peers would either never show up or tell me they’d be right back before leaving and never returning only to watch and laugh from a distance. It was disappointing, hurtful and I didn’t understand why I was being treated that way. I am blessed at being a gifted athlete and I have a passion for soccer. This would also be stripped away from me as I was excluded on the field, and as a result, was discouraged from joining the soccer team.

I coped with this issue primarily through the help of my parents and certain school faculty. Although the faculty were empathetic towards my situation, there wasn’t much that they could do. The bullying wasn’t happening in front of their noses, but was hidden from view. Many kids saw and heard it all but they didn’t step in to help for fear that they would be the next one to be bullied.

DM: What led you to become a national voice and advocate? What are your main objectives?

CK: I know what it means to be bullied and to be the outcast and I don’t want anyone to ever feel the way I did. I knew that in order to stop this problem in not only our country, but the whole world, someone needed to step up and stand up for the voiceless. Once I moved to a new school, I was able to gain more confidence and decided to start looking for an organization to get involved in. That’s when I found the PACER center in Minnesota. After talking with Julie Hertzog at PACER, I got the green light to bring Unity Day to my school. Although ending bullying is a big part of what I’m trying to do, it isn’t my entire objective. My dream is for people to come together to celebrate and validate their differences. For example, those that are part of the neurodiverse community look at various things in the world in a different way. My dream is to create a world where people can disagree, be open to new views and ideas, but have civil discourse rather than contempt for one another. In this day and age, the country needs people need to have more respect for one another’s differences. Spread kindness, respect and include those that are different. That can make all the difference in someone’s life.

DM: Tell us more about your efforts to create a formal resolution by Congress to support Unity Day. How has that experience been?

CK: Once I established Unity Day at my high school, Greens Farms Academy, I wanted to go even bigger. That’s when I came up with an idea for a national Unity Day. What started as an idea would soon blow up to be a rewarding and humbling project! I started by emailing as many members of Congress as I could. When I didn’t get a response, I would send and resend the message again. I was relentlessly sending emails and calling offices for 3 months until I finally started getting responses. From there, it was a matter of time before I had a whole schedule full of meetings with 20 different offices in Washington DC. My local representative, Fred Camillo, was even able to help me secure a meeting with Senator Richard Blumenthal from my home state of Connecticut! After giving my pitch for a national Unity Day, all of the offices supported my idea and encouraged me to continue. After the success with my first visit in Washington, I continued to follow up with Senator Richard Blumenthal. He agreed to help me write a resolution to be presented to the Senate, and Congressman Tom Emmer lead the charge in the drafting the resolution for the House of Representatives. The most amazing and humbling part of the whole process was actually being able to edit the resolution. So here I was, sitting in my bedroom editing a resolution for a national Unity Day, when only three years prior I was being told to kill myself and that I didn’t matter. It was one of, if not the, most amazing moments of my life.

DM: What advice do you have for bullying victims and for those with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities?

CK: What I would tell anyone who is being bullied now is DONT LET IT STOP YOU! Keep speaking out! Keep fighting! Tell everyone in school, adults, anyone until they listen. If we all stand together and unite for tolerance, kindness and respect, the bully will not stand a chance.

DM: We see you’re the lone survivor of triplets. How has that affected your perspective on life?

CK: Being a surviving triplet has played a big role in my life. It has instilled a sense of focus, confidence and self-worth in me. I know that I am here for a reason. I have a purpose in the world. It always shown me that others have a purpose too. It played a large role in me keeping my composure through the tough times. My outlook on life is that everyone is important and everyone is here for a reason. Confidence, however, is a luxury that many victims of bullying do not have. That’s why it’s important to stand with one another rather than against each other.

A way to get involved and show your support for not only victims of bullying, but also for unity would be taking the #UnityChallenge on social media. Go to UnityChallenge.org to take part in the movement. Pick one of the 3 words that signify Unity Day: Tolerance, Kindness and Respect, and then write the word on your hand and take a photo. Then write a small caption on why you chose that word, what it means to you and post it. This small action can positively impact the lives of so many people around the nation and beyond!

Award-Winning Code Jumper Helps Kids Learn Coding

yound disabled boy playing with building blocks on coffee table

The Consumer Technology Association has awarded American Printing House (APH) with a highly coveted Best of Innovation award in the Accessibility category for its Code Jumper, an inclusive product that allows children who are blind or visually impaired to learn computer coding alongside their sighted peers.

Originally designed by Microsoft and developed by APH, Code Jumper is an incredible innovation that teaches children ages 7-11, regardless of their level of vision, computer coding skills.

Children not only learn basic programming concepts, such as sequencing, iteration, selection, and variables, but also learn skills like computational thinking and debugging, which can serve them in all areas of life.

“Every child should have equal access to the important jobs being created in the technology field.

Code Jumper gives them that access and opens a path to a meaningful career,” explains APH CEO Craig Meador. “We hope to inspire other companies to design products that are inclusive and ensure the future belongs to everyone.”

ADA Anniversary – What Does the Future Look Like for People with Disabilities at Work?

blind man holding cane in office setting and coworkers seated at conference table

The most recent episode of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT)’s Future of Work podcast features Josh Christianson, Co-Director of PEAT, as he highlights predictions made by Future of Work podcast guests regarding anticipated changes resulting from emerging technology and the impact on the workplace and workforce of our future.

The Future of Work podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of the PEAT’s Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.​

During the interview, Josh and Jessica discuss their five favorite predictions for the next 30 years of the ADA that they’ve had as part of this Future of Work podcast season, I guess, of the Future of Work series. They discuss predictions from the following guests:

  • Joel Ward, Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Chancey Fleet, New York Public Library
  • Alexandra Givens, Center for Democracy & Techhnology
  • Chris Baumgart, Imagine! Colorado
  • George Karalis, STRIVR

Listen to the complete interview with Josh on the PEAT website.

Meet Chelsie Hill, Founder, Rollettes

chelsie hill rolettes founder sits on sidewalk ledge of building with a foot up on her wheelchair smiling

The following post originally appeared on The Fem Word, a global platform broadcasting stories of bold women in creative spaces.

The Fem Word can be found on social media @thefemword @thefemword

Alyssa Sofat:

Hi, my name is Alyssa Sofat and I am a contributor at The Fem Word. The Fem Word is all about empowering women and finding women who are making a change in the world. You stood out to us and we love what you do – so thank you, Chelsie, for being with us today! I’m so excited to talk to you.

Chelsie Hill:

Thank you for having me.


You grew up dancing and always dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, but at age 17, you were involved in a drunk driving accident which left you unable to walk. You continued to pursue your dreams and moved to Los Angeles to create a dance team starring women in wheelchairs. You have inspired so many women to never let go of their dreams and to “Be Boundless.” I was reading about your life before the accident – do you ever wish that you spent more time just being a teenager? What would you tell someone who spends all their time working?


Before my accident, I actually worked two jobs and there was one time where I worked three jobs. I worked at Hollister, a breakfast place, and an Italian dinner place. Before my accident, I worked as much as I could along with going to high school. I don’t regret working because it taught me what it was like to work a nine-to-five job. It taught me a lot of discipline on how to manage my money as a young teenager and how to save my money. I don’t regret that at all. I definitely had a lot of amazing moments where I could go and have fun. I had a really good balance before my accident.


When the accident first happened and you were told that this would be the situation for the rest of your life…how did you wrap your head around that?


Oh, man. I was 17 years old, and I was in the pediatric ICU. Two weeks later, the doctor came in and he said, “do you have any questions for me?” The first thing I said was, “why can’t I feel my legs?” For those two weeks, my friends and family that were in the room with me said that it was just the medication and they wanted to wait until I was fully coherent after all of my surgeries to actually let me know about the paralysis. So the first time I asked “why can’t I feel my legs,” he said, “well, you’re paralyzed, you’re never going to walk again.” I had no idea what a spinal cord injury was at the time. My second question was, “can I have children?” He told me, “I have to talk to your parents because you’re underage.” The first year, I was really in denial. I thought, you break a bone, you go to the doctor, they heal you, and then you go back to your normal life. I had no idea that you could break a bone and it could alter the course of your entire life. I couldn’t really understand it. I’d have waves of moments where I couldn’t believe it was real. It was really hard. Really, really hard.


Did you feel that people started to treat you differently after the accident, and what was your reaction to that?


My friends didn’t really treat me differently. If I wanted to go out with my friends, they’d be like, all right, let’s figure it out. It took five girls to get my wheelchair apart and put it back together. They really took me in and supported me. I’d be at school and I’d have books on my lap and people would help carry them for me. My accident was so public that every time I’d go into the grocery store, people would stare at me. I was known as the girl that was paralyzed in the drunk driving accident. I was going and speaking at schools about drunk driving and distracted driving. I was always in the news, and that was really uncomfortable because I didn’t know how people felt about my accident. My family was always by my side. They said, “whatever you want to do, let’s figure it out. You want to get into a car without a slide board? Let’s figure it out.” I had a great support system very early on.


Ultimately, you decided to move to LA from your hometown to do what you love most – which is dancing – but in a wheelchair.  On top of that, you had to navigate and learn about a new city. What was that like for you?


I was a few years [into being] injured and I was talking to my dad and I was like, I still want to be a professional dancer. I want to see if I can do it. I want to go down and take classes at all of these top dance studios. My dad was like, “all right, let’s do it, we’ll go down, let’s find you an apartment.” I got an apartment down here but it took me about six months to start going to classes. On social media, I never saw any wheelchair users in any of these big classes. I knew I could do the choreography, I wasn’t scared of that. It was more so being the only wheelchair user in that room of able-bodied dancers. Nobody knew who I was and nobody knew that I was a dancer before. I had to explain myself. I remember going into a dance studio and taking a beginner class for the first time ever. I left feeling so out of place, like people were staring at me, like I didn’t belong there because I was different. My first few times were really hard. I was definitely discriminated against very bluntly in a few classes. But I kept going because I have the same passion as the girl or guy standing next to me. Why is that any different? I kept going back and then I started getting into videos that were at studios. That’s when people started seeing me and taking me seriously.


What’s the term that you feel people should refer to you as? I don’t believe disabled is the right term to use.


I get this question a lot. I don’t really have a strong opinion because I know people that say, “that girl is disabled,” don’t mean it in a negative way. They’re just uneducated. I would always prefer people to say, wheelchair users, because we are wheelchair users. I don’t agree with the term wheelchair-bound. A lot of people say, wheelchair-bound dancer or wheelchair-bound actress. I don’t sleep in my chair. Do you know what I mean? I don’t shower in my chair. I can get out, it is just a device we use to get around. A wheelchair user is probably the most correct term.


What’s the biggest challenge that you have had to face by having to incorporate this new normal into your life?


With a spinal cord injury, paralysis comes where the level of injury stops. My level of injury hits my belly button, so everything below there can’t feel temperature. I can’t feel bathroom functions, none of that. If I break a bone [in that area], I won’t be able to feel it. I think the hardest part of a lot of spinal cord injuries [is] maintaining and understanding how to use the bathroom. That is the biggest struggle. I can get through life without walking, maintaining the bathroom function is the biggest thing with wheelchair users or people with spinal cord injuries Every spinal cord injury is different. It’s very interesting how powerful it is. Two people could be injured at the same level, like me and my friend, Maria – same exact level of injury in the beginning, same car crash and everything. But now she can move her legs and feel different things. Her level of injury went down, but mine stayed the same. So it’s very interesting, the spinal cord.


Will it be like that for the rest of your life?


Probably. It’s been about 10 years. I did physical therapy for about six years and really pushed [myself] to walk again. If I do enough physical therapy, I’ll walk again. That’s not the case for every spinal cord injury. I had to make a decision a few years ago, do I keep paying $150 out of pocket to try and regain something that I don’t know is certain? Or do I make the best of my situation and love my life even more? I still work out, I still get cardio in, and I still stand. I still do as much physical therapy, but it was mentally a really hard decision for me because I felt like I was giving up on walking. I don’t think I was giving up, I just have a different mindset.


I love that positivity and I love the name of your organization: Rollettes. What is the meaning behind that name and how did you choose it?


I thought of the name Rollettes back in 2013. It just came to my mind a few years ago, but I opted not to do it because my dad and I had a nonprofit at the time called Walk and Roll. I decided to shut down the nonprofit because it was not working for me, volunteering for a nonprofit is so hard and then you’re running it a lot. I shut it [down] and I said, I’m going to make Rollettes a business and I’m going to do a camp every summer and we’re going to have a wheelchair dance team and we did it.


You started Rollettes in 2012 and from that time you have been noticed by The Today Show, Ellen, Access Daily, Seventeen, etc. You have also performed at NY Fashion Week! Did you ever think that this would happen?


I never in a million years would have thought my story would be all over. I started this purely because I wanted friends. I just reached out to girls to start this team and start performing because I just wanted to meet people. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone. I’m so thankful for all the friendships that I have gained from it. The publicity is just the cherry on top, but it’s just about the mission. It’s about empowering women with disabilities to live boundlessly and shift perspective through dance. I’m beyond thankful for everything that I’ve been able to be a part of and where I’ve been able to share my platform. Laying in the hospital at 17 years old being classified as disabled, I only dreamed of where I am today and living it. It gives me a purpose to wake up every morning.

Best Friends Given 2% Survival Rate at Birth Beat the Odds, Graduate Together

Best friends Odin Frost and Jordon Granberry in wheelchairs next to each other on graduation day

Two best friends given a 2% survival rate at birth beat the odds and graduated from their school in Tyler, Texas, last Thursday.

Odin Frost is non-verbal autistic, and his best friend, Jordon Granberry, had brain damage due to complications at birth that led to a lack of oxygen in the brain, Odin’s dad, Tim Frost, said.

Frost shared a post of the two best friends that went viral on Reddit, showing Odin and Jordon on the first day of school and on graduation day.

The father recalled Odin and Jordon playfully bonding from that very first day of their special needs school, which started at age 3.

“Jordon had just bit Odin, and Odin retaliated by pinching him back,” Frost said to NBC 5 via Instagram direct message. “I think that was their way of showing each other what they were capable of, and in a funny way, a bonding moment.”

Frost explained that the two were told they would never walk and live in a vegetative state if they made it past 7 years old.

But Odin was the first to walk, and he would push Jordon’s wheelchair as the two defied the odds and developed a special relationship that endured through 18 years of school.

“Most kids Odin’s age, as well as adults, have not been kind to him,” Frost said. “They look on, stare or even are scared of them … [However], with each other, there never was any thought in the world that there was something different or wrong with them, as it should be.”

And on June 16, Odin and Jordon both graduated in what Frost called a “surreal” moment, holding his son’s hand across the stage and trying to hold back tears.

“We almost didn’t go,” Frost said. “We wanted to keep him safe, same with Jordon’s parents. But something in us said, ‘We can’t let Odin miss out on graduation.’ I never graduated high school or even went to high school, so I didn’t want him to be robbed of this privilege.”

And now Odin and Jordon are officially high school graduates and also internet famous.

Continue on to NBC News to read the complete article.

Becoming Part of the Voice Revolution

Project understood promotional poster with people in background walking and man with Down Syndrome upfront and close

By Kristen Halpen

Imagine a young adult starting their day in 2032. They wake up to an alarm playing the latest hit they requested the night before, are greeted by their friendly robot in the kitchen with suggestions on what to have for breakfast to fuel their morning, and a handy voice reminder to take their medication.

Another chimes in, advising them of what is on their agenda, offering suggestions on what to wear based on the local weather and the day’s activities. They leave for work in their driverless car with a bag packed with everything they need while away from the house for the day. The door locks, heat turns down, lights turn off behind them. And this was all made possible with voice technology.

Now imagine this voice-first future not working for people with Down syndrome. The reality is that some of the people who could benefit from this technology the most might be left out.

According to Google, the current error rate for people with Down syndrome is on average 30 percent. But there is work being done to improve this. A few years ago, Google launched a program called Project Euphonia to make voice technology more accessible for individuals with non-standard speech. One challenge for Google has been recruiting enough people to participate in the data collection process. The Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS) saw this as a great opportunity to collaborate and reach individuals within the Down syndrome community. Between Google’s technological expertise and CDSS’ connections, the partnership works to further Project Euphonia’s research. CDSS wants to ensure that individuals with Down syndrome are being well represented in the future of voice technology, and so Project Understood was created.

“For most people, voice technology simply makes life a little easier. For people with Down syndrome, it has the potential for creating greater independence. From daily reminders to keeping in contact with loved ones and accessing directions, voice technology can help facilitate infinite access to tools and learnings that could lead to enriched lives,” says Laura LaChance, Interim Executive Director with CDSS.

Project Understood aims to collect voice data from adults with Down syndrome to improve its voice recognition models. “With the help of CDSS we were able to sample a small group to test whether there were enough patterns in the speech of people with Down syndrome for our algorithm to learn and adapt,” says Julie Cattiau, Product Manager at Google. “It’s exciting to see the success of that test and move into the next phase of collecting voice samples that represent the vocal diversity of the community. The more people who participate, the more likely Google will be able to eventually improve speech recognition for everyone.”

“This project has really struck a chord with the Canadian Down syndrome community,” says Glen Hoos, Director of Communications for the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. “As we’ve shared Project Understood with our families, there has been a great deal of enthusiasm for it. It’s easy to see how the technology can be leveraged to create greater independence for many people with Down syndrome, if it can be successfully adapted to diverse patterns of speech.” So now it is up to the Down syndrome community to take action. Machines learn through data. The more data they get, the more accurate they are.

Source: Project Understood