August 2010

AMS Vans Boasts New Lake Front Property

Some days something enchanting happens that makes the world just that much more magical when you arrive at your place of employment, and today was certainly one of those days. After waking up and going through our morning routines to show up for another fantastic day at work, all of the AMS Vans employees arrived at the office with an unexpected barrier in front of the building. We had acquired new lakefront property overnight!

We can say that it resembled this beauteous park setting with a gravel walkway…


…in front of a calm lake with frogs singing…


…and water lapping at the shore…


but then we realized that something was different… something was wrong.  This wasn’t a newfound lake or the fountain of youth that had sprung overnight…


For those pictures were the work of our extremely talented graphic artist and photographer…


And it was really the road in front of our parking lot…


And part of our parking lot itself!


Our new little paradise was something we certainly did not expect, and Jill wandered away with Chris to test how the waters were for fishing.


News crews arrived to film the momentous occasion…


While construction crews looked on with wonder after arriving earlier this week to fix mysterious sink holes that appeared near us.


As Jill spotted some trout in the lake.


We learned what caused our momentous day, and Matt was even on television talking about it. (view below)  Apparently the construction crew didn’t create a way for the storm water to drain while fixing our sink holes.

Otherwise, life is almost back to normal again on our plateau.  The water has been pumped out, the roads are clear, and now we just have to see if the crew will still be on schedule to have the sink hole fixed by Monday.  Regardless, we welcome customers and have plenty of room to park on the side parking lot. 🙂

Paralyzed Computer Engineer Helps Develop Technology for Kids with Disabilities


Eric Wan is helping to develop specialized software for children with disabilities. His latest project is a virtual music instrument that plays music and displays colorful shapes on a screen when the user “touches” the shapes by swaying their head from side to side or moving their wheelchair. Essentially the user sits in front of a webcam, and the video shows them surrounded by shapes on the live video that they interact with. As the pace increases of the user, the melody and video responds and accelerates along with flow. With every bob of the head, the program combined with the user craft their own musical composition.

“There’s a lot of kids that are not able to play music just because they’re not able to hold the musical instrument,” said the 32-year-old Wan. “I think that there’s a lot of children who would like to play music through some kind of way, so this is one of the reasons that I’m interested in this project.”

This Virtual Music Instrument is one of several projects Wan has been working on all aimed at helping children with disabilities, a topic he knows much about. Wan was paralyzed at age 18 after a diagnosis of tranverse myelitis – a condition resulting from inflammation of the spinal cord. Doctors could only point to a measles vaccination 4 days before that could have caused the problem. They had hoped he would be walking again, but it didn’t happen. Wan was paralyzed from the shoulders down and initially unable to breathe on his own. Two years later he was able to breathe during the day, but at night he requires a ventilator.


Wan notes that he was very depressed early on after the trauma, but school kept his mind occupied and helped him navigate through some of the toughest times. He dealt with the barriers of having people stare at him on campus, and he put it all behind him.

“I don’t put much focus on that. I go to school, and once in a while I see students staring at me. Maybe they’re curious, or maybe they feel I shouldn’t be there. I don’t put much thought into it because it won’t change anything. I focus on where I want to go and my purpose in being there. “

Through attending school, he met Tom Chau, a senior scientist with Bloorview Research Institute located on-site. The two were connected through a respiratory therapist Wan had worked with while in long-term rehab. Wan started volunteering at the hospital in the summer and returned the following year as an intern. He’s been part of the team ever since and was brought on board as an undergrad to work with the Paediatric Rehabilition Intelligent Multidisciplinary lab, or PRISM for short. PRISM focuses their efforts on children with disabilities or special needs and their families.

Other projects Wan helped bring to life include an iPod-based system that allows an individual who requires the use of a vantilator to wander freely throughout the hospital independently as well as a device called the Aspirometer for detecting swallowing safety.

This fall Wan is heading back to the books after graduate school, and he’s off to pursue a two-year master’s degree at U of T. He plans to continue down his current path of developing software to help children with disabilities gain more control of their environments.


To view a video about Eric Wan and the Virtual Music Device, follow the link below:–paralyzed-man-s-work-helps-disabled-kids–page1

Video: Free Hugs Offered on the Street

Juan Mann had a mission.  It can be hard to be sincere to strangers in modern day society without coming off like a weirdo, begger, or someone that is missing a few pieces of the puzzle.  Enter the free hugs campaign.  Juan Mann made it his goal to reach out and hug strangers, putting smiles on their faces.

He stood alone for a while in a busy area holding up a sign, and people veered far away from his path.


Why is he there?

What’s going on?

Finally, people started reaching back for Juan and giving him the hugs he requested with the words “FREE HUGS” so large on his homemade sign.


The hugs were infectious as people ran, jumped, and flew into Juan for the free hugs.  Others began holding up their own signs for hugs, and smiles were everywhere.


What happened next surprised Juan and everyone involved.

Police and city officials BANNED the Free Hugs Campaign. It was declared unfit for public areas.


That’s when the magic happened.

Gathering signatures started slow at first, but gradually 83 turned into 572 which turned into 5395 and resulted in the goal of 10,000 signatures reached.


With that many voices speaking, the city officials decided to let the new tradition continue.

Long live the Free Hug Campaign.

Watch the video below!

Miss Wheelchair America 2011 Crowned


Every year a new Miss Wheelchair America is crowned.  Only, this is in no way a beauty contest. Instead, the pageant provides an outlet as a spokesman for persons with disabilities.  The winner spends the next year traveling the country while visiting advocacy groups, making public appearances and conducting radio, print, and TV interviews.  This year’s winner of Miss Wheelchair America is North Carolina resident Alexandra McArthur.


The pageant was a week long event with 28 contestants vying for the title.  The contest included three interviews, a 2-minute platform speech, among other things.  Each girl is judged on their achievements, advocacy platforms, presentations, and their ability to communicate to the public, business community, and lawmakers. Miss Wheelchair America 2010 was present to hand over a new crown.



McArthur’s winning platform included employment and improving the workplace for people with disabilities. Noting that last month was the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, she said she wants to spread the word to employers that fears about the cost of accommodating disabled workers are unnecessary. It’s often cheaper and easier than employers expect, she said. In some cases, changes may be as simple as a special chair or computer monitor, a push-button doorway, or making a pamphlet available in Braille.

Just as important, she says, is the opportunity for people with and without disabilities to interact in the workplace. She says “meaningful inclusion” can help both understand one another. “My being employed gives my co-workers access to something they wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. That is, “to have continued contact with people with disabilities, in a day-by-day, very practical way.”



McArthur has been using a wheelchair for three years due to progressive muscular dystrophy.  She was still fairly mobile, but she decided traveling in a wheelchair would be better than relying on weakening legs and hips.  To walk she requires railings or a person’s arm.  Her sister, Park McArthur, also has MD and uses a wheelchair. Alexandra noted that this is quite rare.


McArthur’s day job is a leadership development fellow in the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development at Davidson College.  She said Devidson College has been very accommodating for people with disabilities. “It’s very ready to learn and adapt new ideas,” she said. But she said some responsibility also falls on disabled people. “It’s up to the person to clearly articulate what they need.”

She said her own employer, Davidson College, and supervisor, Julia Baker Jones, take a broad view of accommodation.

“She says everyone has things they have to sort out at work. … (Disabilities) are just another thing that we figure out.”

McArthur raised the money for the $1,500 entry fee for the pageant from family and friends as well as a grant from Wachovia/Wells Fargo Foundation.


To view a video clip of the New Miss Wheelchair America 2011, visit the link below:–wheelchair-america-crown

Autism Breakthrough: Diagnosis in 15 minutes and 90% Accuracy


A breakthrough happened within the autism community that will change the way that autism is diagnosed.  A new technique developed at King’s College London uses a fifteen minute MRI scan to analyze the structure of grey matter in the brain.  Tests have shown that the accuracy rate is 90%.

ASD is currently diagnosed behaviorally with a list of symptoms.  With this new ability to detect autism with anatomical data, screening could be done at a very young age without the need of a parent or doctor to notice behavior changes.

A study was performed at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) using MRI scans on three different groups of males.  20 were healthy controls, 20 had prior diagnoses of ASD, and 19 were diagnosed with ADHD.  Each was given traditional testing involving an IQ test, a psychiatric interview, a physical exam, and a blood test.  After this was done the subjects were scanned via MRI to see if there were biological correlates to their diagnosis.  The difference in the brain of an autistic person and other subjects was noted as special cortical features. The ADHD was not able to be differentiated from their healthy counterparts yet provided another control for autism detection.

The researchers attempted to distinguish the two different types of diagnoses of autism vs. Aspergers, but it was difficult to know with so few participants.  Future research will determine if they will be able to diagnose subcategories of the differences in brains.


A 2006 study at Drexel Univesity estimated that 1 in 170 children have some form of ASD, ten times higher than the estimate given in the 1980’s.  It is unknown if we are diagnosing the disorder more consistently, or if it is on the rise.

To learn more about the autism breakthrough for 15 minute detection using MRI, watch the video below:

New State-of-the-Art College Dorm Opens for Students with Disabilities

The University of Illinois at Chicago is leading the way in personalized care for students with disabilities along with the integration of living quarters with other students on campus.  17 new students with disabilities will live on the first floor of Nugent Hall along with 150 students on the floors above them.  When the building is complete in two years, the number of students will be around 500.  The building is connected to a new dining hall, convenience store, and meeting spaces.

The features in each of the accessible rooms is nothing short of state-of-the-art.  You can close the window blinds with the press of a button.  The sinks, thermostats, and light switches are at an accessible height.  Dorm rooms open by waving a wireless card.  Faucets are sensor activated.  And the roll-in showers come with chairs.

There are also personal assistants, known as PAs, who live in the building.  They help students shower, use the bathroom, and hook backpacks on their wheelchair before leaving for class. Most of them are college students themselves.  Residents learn how to hire, schedule, and manage their PAs for the allotted 5 hours per day.  Residents are also given a wireless pager to call for help 24 hours a day.

Currently there are only around 5 colleges in the US that provide personal assistant services.  The University of Illinois at Chicago charges $11,000 for room and board along with $18,000 more for the support services that may be covered through the state’s vocational rehabilitation program.

The hall was named for Ted Nugent, who founded the university’s division of disability services in 1948 which was the first higher education program of its kind in the world.  The University of Illinois at Chicago was also the first to introduce curb cuts, offer bus routes equipped with wheelchair lifts, and have a wheelchair sports program.


The Boy Who Could See Without Eyes


Ben Underwood was blind since he was 3 years old.  A battle with cancer caused him to have his eyes removed.  Despite losing his eyes, Ben could still see using sound.

Using a series of clicking noises, Ben was able to map out the location of the world around him in a process known as echolocation.  He is the only person in the world able to use this technique which is similar to how dolphins and other creatures navigate the ocean with sonar.


Ben’s mother taught him to focus on his abilities instead of his disabilities.  From the first moment when he awoke after surgery and told his momma that he couldn’t see, she said to him that nothing was impossible and that he could in fact see using his ears, nose, and hands.  His mother focused on never allowing Ben to be treated as if he was disabled.

Just one year later while driving down a busy city street with his mother, he asked her from his car seat if she could see a big building “out there.”  She was amazed that he was correct, and he had expanded his abilities to use echolocation for his sight ever since.


Ben never used a white cane, a guide dog, or any assistance.  Scientists were fascinated by his ability, and other children with cancer were in awe of his talents.

Sadly, Ben Underwood passed away at the age of 16 in his battle with cancer after inspiring millions with his courage, abilities, and determination.  He developed cancer in the rest of his body and grew weaker as days passed.  At the end, Ben told his mother that he was ready to go to sleep and wake up in Heaven.  Ben was a beautiful soul that will continue to inspire all those who hear his story.

This (nearly) 1 hour documentary that we found on YouTube shows the story of Ben Underwood who thrived in a world despite of his disability. It is cut into 5 parts.  We hope you enjoy it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

To learn more about Ben and read a letter from his mother, visit

Update:  Matthew Horspool on Twitter suggests that Ben Underwood was not the only person capable of using echolocation, and that nearly everyone who is blind uses the technique to some degree.  He does suggest that Ben Underwood was the most sophisticated user.  Thanks for the input Matthew!

Oprah Faces More Alleged Discrimination Against Disabled


Oprah is in the news for the second time this year facing more allegations of discrimination. A former employee filed a discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit claiming the company fired her for having multiple sclerosis.

Catherine Dunn, 57, worked at the network in 2008 and says she was forced to take a leave of absence when her MS “symptoms were exacerbated because of the workplace stress.”  Dunn claims that she had to leave because the network was unwilling to help her work around the symptoms that are related to her disease. While she was on leave, Dunn says a “non-disabled and younger employee” filled her position. Dunn is asking for unspecified damages for losing her position.

In her tenure as an assistant at the OWN Network, Dunn took two leaves of absence due to her medical condition. It was during her second leave of absence that she was replaced by a new employee.

Dunn filed a total of 25 pages of complaints in the Los Angeles Superior Court against the talk show host and her company.

The spokesperson for the OWN network told E! News, “We have not seen the lawsuit. We are unaware of the claims. When and if we see something we will review appropriately.” Oprah’s television network OWN is set to launch on television in January of 2011.


Oprah was in the news earlier this year with Zach Anner, a comedian with cerebral palsy who tried out for her tv show. Anner mysteriously lost 6.5 million votes on the voting area of Oprah’s website, and a few tech savvy users discovered that the voting button was different for Zach Anner than it was for the other contestants. AMS Vans also captured a screenshot of the voting differences on one of several blog posts we have about Zach Anner and the Oprah allegations in a previous blog post here.

It is unknown how either story will unfold, but we’ll keep you posted.


New Robotic Game Teaches Children How to Drive Wheelchairs

In hopes to lower the cost and improve accessibility to wheelchair training for children with disabilities, US researchers are creating a robot that teaches users how to drive a powered wheelchair safely. The robot is called ROLY – “RO”bot-assisted Learning for Young Drivers.

The idea is to teach children how to drive their wheelchairs at their own pace while also saving costs on the traditional one-on-one training that can take many sessions to complete and is not always available.

The robotic wheelchair trainer steers itself along a course marked by a line on the floor using computer vision. As the robot moves, the user follows behind trying to catch the robot in “robot tag.” The joystick reacts using a force feedback system and guides the user’s hand in the appropriate steering motions. The path and user reaction is used to decide how much control is taken over by the wheelchair’s joystick and it eases as the learner performs the task themselves. It is similar to having a therapist there with a hand over the learner’s hand and gradually surrendering control to the learner as they improve. ROLY applies just enough force, in addition to that applied by the learner, to lead the wheelchair in the right direction.

Studies have concluded that the robotic trainer has resulted in significantly better steering ability after a single session of training for children with and without motor impairments.

An 8 year old child with cerebral palsy and severe motor impairment completed the course with a greater amount of control in steering the wheelchair than the children performing the course without motor impairment.

When the child catches the toy robot it does a little dance and the wheelchair plays a little tune.

It is unsure when this robot will become widely available.