May 2011

Disabled Band Lights a Flame under the World

Originated in upstate New York, ten people with both developmental and physical disabilities came together to create a rock band that sends a message to the world to change the way people see those with disabilities. Since it’s creation in 2003 as a recreation program in Lexington, the band continues to grow in popularity.

The phenomenal band continues to serve not only as an inspiration to other people with disabilities, but also to the parents of children with disabilities. Parents often get quite emotional at concerts, seeing the band as a symbol that their children can discover their dreams without limitations. Members of the band continue with the common goal to change the world through music in spite of a range of disabilities, that include Autism, Down’s Syndrome, paralysis, and blindness.


The original thought was to have the band play locally in Fulton County, but demand for the band quickly went worldwide, playing over 70 paid performances a year including concerts in 15 states and Europe. From a set list of over 100 classic rock, country, and blues songs spanning over 50 years, Flame is able to make each concert a new experience. Whether it’s a civic event or a school function, the band remains in high demand.

Flame currently tours on a custom tour bus to accommodate the band members’ individual disabilities. Recently, they have been catapulted to even greater success with being featured in People magazine and ABC’s Good Morning America, garnering them requests to play larger state and national conventions, as well as performing for New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg. Their loyal following of people of all ages and backgrounds continues to grow and connect with the band. Flame has released 3 CD’s and is currently working on their 4th CD set to release very soon.


New Robotic Wheelchair Offers Sight and More Independence


A group of students at Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology are working together to design a wheelchair that can help aid with sight for users who have impaired vision. The chair is installed with a haptic robot, which uses a laser that acts as a white cane. The laser scans the terrain and produces a simple 3D map of the wheelchair’s surroundings, allowing the user to feel out obstacles.

“This may be important aids for the visually impaired who are wheelchair users. Many have already been in touch with me and asked if they can come for a test drive,” says the chair’s developer, professor Kalevi Hyyppa. Daniel Innala Ahlmark is a visually-impaired graduate student, who is involved in the project and has helped test out the wheelchair. For one of the tests, Daniel went into a busy corridor at the university with multiple on-passers and doorways.

“I feel safe when I run it, it is like using a white cane,” he says.

There are still many adjustments and discoveries to complete the wheelchair. The laser beam that reads the terrain has trouble analyzing things if they are not at a certain height. Therefore, the team plans on developing a camera that can do a full 3D measurement, and they assume that in about 5 years they will be complete with their design.


New Shopping Basket for Manual Wheelchair Users


A group of engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology have redefined the way manual wheelchair users go to the grocery store. The Biomedical Engineering Senior Design Team has invented a motorized shopping basket for sale or lease to large grocery stores that will allow manual wheelchair users to easily navigate the aisles of the store, as well as make large shopping trips, all while using their own wheelchair.

Dr. Arthur Ritter, Program Director for the Biomedical Engineering gave the team, comprised of Greg Bremer, Gabriella Reyes, Samantha Samuel, and Ben Scatuorchio, the idea of inventing a better wheelchair attachment for use as a shopping basket. After assessing the current tools available to wheelchair users in a grocery store, the team decided to go in a different direction and rethink the basket itself.

With grocery store options currently limited to the motorized scooter with a small basket or full-size shopping carts that are difficult to use effectively, the only other option for wheelchair users wishing to use their own wheelchairs is to balance small baskets on their laps or hang bags behind their chairs. None of those options, however, assist a wheelchair user who wants to go on a large shopping trip.

To overcome this obstacle, the Senior team developed a motorized basket that acts as a tool rather than a mode of transportation. The device, known as “The Revolver” due to the basket’s rotating feature when groceries are deposited, allows the shopper to utilize the entire space of the larger basket. Both the dimensions and power capabilities meet the needs of shopping from a wheelchair and exceed the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Currently, “The Revolver” is being marketed to large supermarkets that exceed $2 million in profits per year. The baskets can either be sold or leased. The device is much less expensive when compared to offering customers less desirable options currently available, and the baskets even offer space for advertisements, further lowering their cost to the supermarkets.


Air Powered Suit Allows Paraplegics to Walk

After his career in the Army was cut short when he sustained serious injuries throughout his body including breaking several vertebrae in a parachuting accident, Monty Reed’s life changed forever. Doctor’s told Reed he would never walk again, but after 20 years of physical therapy, rehabilitation, and ingenuity, Reed would prove them all wrong with a new invention that indeed allows him to walk again.

Reed vowed to dedicate his life to not only helping himself to walk, but also other paraplegics. After his accident, Reed studied robotics at North Seattle Community College. However, it wasn’t a text book that would take Reed down the road to achieving his life’s dream. The inspiration for what would become known as the LifeSuit came from a science fiction movie written by Robert Heinlein, called Starship Troopers in which soldiers of the future wear robotic suits that allow them to carry heavy gear.

The LifeSuit –or “Rehab Suit” as it’s sometimes called– is a robotic suit that uses compressed air to assist the user to walk and even climb stairs. Reed has poured thousands of dollars of his own money and time into developing the LifeSuit, which is currently on its 14th prototype. In addition to the suit itself, Reed founded an organization called They Shall Walk, whose prime objective is to bring the LifeSuit to those who need it the most.

To explain the main objective of the LifeSuit, Reed said “If you’re paralyzed in this country, the funding typically allows for only one physical therapy session per month. If you can’t move your legs, how are you going to exercise them? The idea for the robot suit is that it will move a patient and they will get passive exercise. When the machine moves their legs, their muscles experience exercise; their bones bear weight, so it maintains bone density and muscle mass.”

After hearing from a young paraplegic boy in Singapore who was contemplating suicide, but who, after reading about Reed’s research and his LifeSuit online, then boy changed his mind and decided to live, Reed was compelled to hold fundraising events for They Shall Walk more than ever.


Alzheimer’s Early Detection by Blood Test?

Detecting Alzheimer's Earlier

Could Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) be diagnosed early by just a blood test? Currently there’s no definitive way to diagnose this most common form of dementia in the elderly, except by doing a postmortem analysis of brain tissue. Beforehand, family history can inform, as can a mental assessment, a physical exam, or a brain scan if available, but if accurate, easy, non-invasive blood tests could aid the early reveal of Alzheimer’s, then therapeutic steps could be taken so much sooner.

Researchers Georges Rammouza, Laurent Lecanua, Paul Aisend, and Vassilios Papadopoulosa released a study in late 2010 for the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in which they investigated this theory. A total of 86 subjects, male and female, from the Memory Disorders Program at the Georgetown University Medical Center were included in the study, with more than half at some stage of Alzheimer’s, and some with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Each was given thorough physical and neurological examinations and additional lab tests, then peripheral blood samples were taken and processed.

Evaluation of the processed blood showed that the level of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) increased dramatically in healthy subjects, but only moderately if at all in subjects known to have Alzheimer’s. DHEA is a major neurosteroid present at normally high levels in the brain and has been found to protect certain brain cells against a particular cellular damage. Apparently AD depletes the DHEA formed at a rate that correlates to the AD patient’s cognitive and mental status. This evaluation can be used as an early diagnostic tool in differentiating MCI from AD and lead to clinically relevant treatments for either.

Alzheimer’s Disease remains incurable and degenerative for now, so the sooner it is diagnosed, the sooner management of its progression can begin. Researchers like Georges Rammouza, Laurent Lecanua, Paul Aisend, and Vassilios Papadopoulosa continue their work. In the meantime, mental stimulation, exercise, and a balanced diet are suggested.

Improving Quality of Life By Earlier Diagnosis


New Smart Wheelchairs Learn to Keep Users Safe


The School of Engineering at Case Western University is working on a new type of power wheelchair targeting aging or developmentally challenged users. As the demand for powerchairs grow by an aging population, the need for a wheelchair that can interpret voice commands and prevent the user from getting into potentially dangerous situations is needed more than ever.

Safety is a huge concern for older and developmentally challenged power wheelchair users. Some retirement communities have even gone as far as to ban power wheelchairs completely. Roboticists at Case Western Reserve University are working on two different types of “smart” power wheelchairs that, through artificial intelligence, would not follow voice or joystick commands that could otherwise cause harm to the user.

The first prototype follows either joystick or voice commands such as “turn left” or “stop.” The voice command or joystick control would pass through a filter that would evaluate the surroundings and decide if that command is safe or not. Additionally, the researchers have devised a different model built on a robot-type platform that would actually “learn” specific locations. The user would give voice commands such as “go to vending machine,” and the powerchair would then plan out the entire path, execute doors, and call elevators to safely get the user to his or her destination.

This new line of “smart” power wheelchairs opens up doors for many people who are currently unable to operate wheelchairs independently new, inspiring hope for mobility and the freedom it offers.

Paraplegic Pilot Flies Solo from the UK to Australia


Dave Sykes, a 43-year-old paraplegic pilot who requires a wheelchair for mobility when he is on the ground, is winging his way into the record books by flying a microlight aircraft from Yorkshire, England to Sydney, Australia. By remaining in the air for seven to eight hours per day and covering distances of around 500 miles each day, Sykes will be the first person, disabled or otherwise, to fly the distance in a microlight aircraft.

In 1993, Sykes was on his way to work on his motorcycle. While passing a car, the other vehicle swerved into his motorcycle, causing him to crash. Sykes suffered critical injuries, including a broken spine, ribs, temporary loss use of one of his arms, and punctured both of his lungs. Doctors gave Sykes a poor prognosis with only a 30% chance of survival. After six months in the hospital, to doctor’s amazement, Sykes emerged a paraplegic, but otherwise healthy.


Despite his injuries, Sykes continued his daredevil dreams, taking up parachuting. After an accident that left him with a broken leg, his girlfriend threatened to leave if he didn’t give up the sport. It was then that Sykes discovered microlighting. Ten years later, with a customized microlight, Sykes is ready to embark on his record breaking journey.

Built by Britain’s P&M Aviation Quik, Sykes’ 450 kilogram microlight is customized with specially modified hand controls that enable him to fly without the use of his legs. Affectionately named the “Flying Motorbike,” Sykes’ aircraft reaches speeds of up to 90 mph and is fitted with a lightweight, aluminum wheelchair in the back of the machine.


The epic journey is an astounding 11,600-mile flight over 18 countries. Fifty-five stops are planned at both major international airports and small airfields, and Sykes will overnight in hotels at some stops or camp at others. If he were doing nothing else, the camping alone will be a major feat for Sykes, since no aides will accompany him on his journey. Sykes’ flight also marks the 80th anniversary of Amy Johnson‘s record flight as the first woman to fly solo to the southern continent.


Sykes is flying to raise money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance. As he flies, he continues to seek sponsors to donate funds to meet his £20,000 goal. The flight will take him 6 to 8 weeks, with the final portion of the route taking him through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia before landing in Sydney, hopefully ahead of Asia’s monsoon season. Sykes will be flying without a parachute on board, stating should a problem occur, he would be able to glide the microlight to a safe landing.


People with Disabilities – To Hire or Not to Hire

It has been proven over and over again that people with disabilities not only want to work, but that they can perform just as well, and in some cases, even better than those who are not facing the same challenges.

‘One Revolution’ Documentary Inspires All


A documentary about Paralympian Chris Waddell being the first paraplegic to climb Mount Kilimanjaro almost entirely without assistance has received glowing reviews at film festivals. Winning Best Documentary at the Geneva Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary at the Memphis Film Festival, One Revolution follows Waddell climbing the highest mountain in Africa.

Always a fanatic about mountain sports, Waddell was a promising member of the ski team at Middlebury College. In 1988, a ski accident left Waddell paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 20. Waddell’s drive never faltered, however, and in only two years after his accident, he was a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Within 11 years of that, Waddell was the most decorated male skier in US Paralympic history.


September 2009 found Waddell on his highly publicized historic climb of Kilimanjaro. He explained the trek as furthering what he had already accomplished as an athlete, just in a little bit of a different arena. Armed with a custom built, all terrain wheelchair vehicle that uses 4 large wheels and allows him to steer with his chest while pedaling with his hands, Waddell made the journey of 19,340 feet in six and a half days.

In addition to his climb being documented by the film crew for One Revolution, he was also closely followed by several prime time news programs like NBC Dateline and CBS Evening News. He was also featured as one of People Magazine‘s “50 Most Beautiful People.”

Waddell, who is a member of both the Paralympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, has a motto: “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.” Viewers leave the documentary inspired by Waddell’s optimism and drive highlighted in the film.


The documentary is an important part of my climb, as my story is a visual one,” Waddell said on the website for the film. “People need to see to understand.” Waddell said he doesn’t want people to look at his story and simply see a disabled person who did something really heartwarming. Instead, he hopes the film will change the way people see themselves and others by finding a way to look beyond obvious differences.

It’s important because it’s about you,” affirmed Waddell. “You can learn something from my journey.”


US Court Of Appeals Rules Stem Cell Research Remain Funded


New York researchers can continue critical stem cell research after a federal appeals court judge ruled that federal funding could continue. The ruling comes from the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals and overturns the decision of a lower court that temporarily halted federal funding. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth blocked the taxpayer funding last summer. His decision was put on hold pending appeal, so federal funding continued after the White House warned research costing millions of dollars would be lost if funding was halted.

Proponents affirm that human embryonic stem cells can produce any type of cell in the body. Some scientists hope the application of such research can address spinal cord injuries, cancer, diabetes, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Opponents of stem cell research, such as the Catholic Church, say embryonic stem cell research takes a potential human life with each harvested cell.

The panel of 3 judges that make up the US Supreme Court of Appeals stated in their ruling that the majority opinion ruled that the U.S. law was “ambiguous” and “did not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC (embryonic stem cell) will be used.”

Although this is hardly the end of the road and appeals are expected to continue, researchers are hopeful. Alexander Cartwright, vice president of research at University of Buffalo states that the ruling is “a good sign.” The University receives millions of dollars in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.