September 2011

ABLE Pilot Program Has Veterans Paragliding in Wheelchairs

Paraplegic Veteran Paraglider

Paraplegic veteran Darol Kubacz recently flew over mountains in Arizona with the help of the Able Pilot program, which provides access to paragliding and other high-altitude sports for vets with disabilities. The program uses a new wheelchair design called the Phoenix, which includes an ultra-light wheelchair attached to a harness. The Phoenix allows a wheelchair user to paraglide just like ambulatory paragliders.

Paraplegic Veteran Paragliding

The Able Pilot program recently took five paraplegic veterans up in paragliding flights using the Phoenix device. The program is a chapter of the United States Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association, and according to their website, their mission is to “help people with disabilities (spinal cord injuries, amputations, and neuromuscular disease) to safely experience the freedom, joys and sense of accomplishment of free flight that paragliding offers.”

Paraplegic Veteran Paragliding

“We’ve all accepted that our mobility is limited,” Kubacz told The New York Times. “But it’s a constant grind to drag our wheels around. In all these sports, moving is effortless again. The sense of freedom is just so incredible.” The recent Arizona flight that included Kubacz was created in conjunction with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, and was partially funded by grants from the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Paraplegic Veteran Paragliding

Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, sponsor of the Wounded Warrior Sports Project, told The New York Times, “They are doing things we never thought possible 10 years ago.”

Paraplegic Veteran Paragliding

Veterans with physical disabilities have been traditionally limited in their options for recreational sports when they return from the field, but a new generation of disabled vets have pioneered adaptive sports to give wheelchair users the ability to enjoy the outdoors, exercise and have fun. Adaptive sports enjoyed by disabled vets such as Kubacz include paragliding, surfing, rock climbing, rafting and kayaking, as well as other extreme sports. New mobility equipment helps veterans with disabilities like paraplegia enjoy these outdoor activities in new ways.


Teen Gains a Service Dog Thanks to Canines for Disabled Kids

Kelsey Swan and Her Service dog Curran

When she was just 15 years old, a painful joint disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrom changed Kelsey Swan’s life forever … but then, so did getting a service dog. After staying in the hospital for three months and undergoing intensive therapy as an outpatient, the teen was told she would have to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The professionals at Boston’s Children Hospital suggested that a service dog could help, but Kelsey and her parents weren’t sure about how to get one. Two years later, Swan was matched with a service dog through the non-profit organization, Canines for Disabled Kids.

Canines for Disabled Kids Pup in Training

Canines for Disabled Kids was able to match Kelsey with Curran, a black Labrador Retriever, through the National Education for Assistance Dog Services program, or NEADS. The NEADS program helps individuals with disabilities find service dogs to assist them with daily activities as well as provide affection and companionship.

NEADS logo

Swan and her service dog have developed a strong bond, and the dog helps the teen with many daily activities. Curran helps Kelsey maintain her balance to prevent falls, including traveling with her to doctor’s appointments and stabilizing her walk down the aisle at her high school graduation. Curran has also learned to fetch Kelsey’s car keys, turn on lights, and even open her cell phone so she can make calls. According to her parents, the dog has even learned to sense when Kelsey is in pain, relieving her joint pain with his body heat by cuddling up to the places where Kelsey is hurting.

Kelsey Swan at Her Graduation with Service Dog

Recently, Kelsey and her loyal companion Curran attended a fundraiser in Times Square in New York City for Canines for Disabled Kids in order to raise awareness about how service dogs can help wheelchair users and other individuals with disabilities live a full life. Curran even fetched Kelsey a box of tissues after she sneezed during the fundraiser!

Curran the Service Dog Fetches Tissues

“We are hoping to raise awareness of service animals working with children and reach out to families whose children may be helped by a dog,” CDK executive director Kristen Hartness told the New York Daily News.


Vanderbilt’s New ‘Bionic’ Leg Mimics Natural Movement

Vanderbilt University's Bionic Leg

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have recently invented a new electronic prosthetic leg that allows amputees to move more naturally. Conventional prostheses can cause pain and muscle stiffness for amputees because they do not move in the same way that bones and muscles naturally move. This new cutting edge prosthetic leg avoids some of these issues by using new technology to create powered joints that operate together to provide a smooth, natural gait.

The lower leg prosthesis has been dubbed a “bionic” leg because it uses technology such as motors and batteries to power the leg, but it relies on sensors to monitor and control motion. Sensors monitor changes in the user’s balance and muscle movement and send signals to the microprocessors to control the leg movement. Electric motors in the knee and ankle joints then complete the movement using battery power. The prosthesis weighs in at around nine pounds, less than a human lower leg, and uses over 30% less energy to operate than conventional fixed leg prostheses.

Vanderbilt University's Bionic Leg

Craig Hutto, the 23-year-old amputee who tested the leg for Vanderbilt University, told Science Daily about his experience with the new prosthesis:

“When it’s working, it’s totally different from my current prosthetic. A passive leg is always a step behind me. The Vanderbilt leg is only a split-second behind.”

The new “bionic” leg allows for a wide range of movement, providing amputees with the ability to tackle obstacles, walk up and down slopes, and even avoid falling. Amputees can easily navigate stairs, and an innovative anti-stumble routine in the microprocessors that control the leg helps users regain their balance if the sensors report that the user is beginning to lose balance.

“Going up and down slopes is one of the hardest things to do with a conventional leg,” Hutto stated. “So I have to be conscious of where I go, because I can get very tired walking up and down slopes. But that won’t be a problem with the powered leg, because it goes up and down slopes almost like a natural leg.”

Craig and Goldfarb with Vanderbilt's Bionic Leg

The powered prosthetic leg has been in development at the Vanderbilt Center for Intelligent Mechatronics for seven years. Research grants were given to the project by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Work is still being done on the “bionic” leg in order to give amputees more mobility and ease of use. The electronics within the leg are constantly being tweaked as researchers refine the prosthesis for manufacture by Freedom Innovations, a company that specializes in lower-limb prosthetic devices. Developers are also trying to make the leg quieter and lighter.

Check out the video below to see where they’re at now:


Disabled Nebraska Teen Challenges School Cheerleader Policy

Sixteen-year-old Julia Sullivan uses a powered wheelchair because she has no arms and legs, but the plucky Nebraska teen didn’t let this stop her from trying out for the cheerleading squad at Aurora High School. When the school gave her low marks on certain physical aspects of the tryouts and denied her the ability to be a cheerleader every year for three years, Julia and her parents took on the school board and negotiated an agreement to let the teen try out again with certain accommodations.

The teen has participated in other school activities like marching band, and the school had no problem accommodating her disability by allowing her to attach the symbols to her wheelchair. Her parents say the cheerleading official’s inability to make similar accommodations for the teen are frustrating and unfair. “For us,” said her father, Mike Sullivan to the Omaha World-Herald, “It’s the basic principle. Any handicapped child in Nebraska could be kept out of activities.”

The school district superintendent, Damon McDonald, told local news sources, “The Aurora Public Schools policies and guidelines are appropriate and legitimate for all students.” The superintendent went on to say that the school district didn’t violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and that to accommodate Julia would “fundamentally alter” the cheerleading program. The school board is seeking legal advice on their policies regarding students with disabilities and programs like cheerleading.

Recently, Mike and Carolyn Sullivan, Julia’s parents, have reached an agreement with the school board on accommodations so that Julia can try out for the squad again in the spring. According to LiveWell Nebraska, the agreement between the parents and school officials levels the playing field for teens that have disabilities who wish to participate in sports and other school-sponsored activities. In the agreement, the district acknowledged that they are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities under the law.

“To us, this wasn’t simply about cheerleading,” stated the Sullivan’s attorney, Kevin Schneider. “It was about how we’re going to handle” such cases in the future.

UPDATE: According to the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, Julia has achieved her goal of becoming a cheerleader! The Portland High School Varsity Cheerleaders of Michigan invited Julia to come cheer for their school after hearing she was not being allowed to cheer at her own high school in Aurora, NE.

Julia Sullivan Hororary Cheerleader

Inspired by Julia’s courage, Portland, MI welcomed the Nebraska teen as an honorary member of their cheerleading team in time for the homecoming celebration. Not only did they bring Julia and her family out for the event, but the whole community organized to make sure the Sullivan’s stay with them was warm and accommodating.

Julia Sullivan Hororary Cheerleader, shown with her dad (kneeling-left) and mom (right)

Julia recorded every moment in her journal, noting, “I will always remember it.”

Julia Sullivan Hororary Cheerleader

More Sources:

Celebrity Chris Brown Gets Handicapped Space Parking Tickets Dismissed

Rapper Chris Brown Parking Tickets Dismissed

Even though parking in handicapped spaces is an ongoing problem for drivers with disabilities and law enforcement alike, it looks like some people who are given parking tickets for taking handicapped spaces without a permit can get their tickets dismissed. Celebrity Chris Brown recently got 95 handicapped space parking tickets dismissed in California, according to celebrity news source TMZ. Brown had over $15,000 worth of tickets for parking in the disabled parking spaces outside his condo, but his lawyer got the majority dismissed.

Rapper Chris Brown Parking Violations

Brown had a total of 117 parking tickets for parking in the handicapped spaces outside his Los Angeles condominium, and sources close to the celebrity say that there was some confusion because these spaces were assigned to his condo. However, this is no excuse for taking parking spaces meant for drivers with disabilities, especially in a residential area.

Rapper Chris Brown Parking Violations

Brown’s attorney got 95 of these tickets dismissed, with 22 tickets for other parking violations still pending. These parking ticket dismissals represent a major reduction in income for the California DMV. The fines for these tickets are said to total around $15,000, but this fine has been seriously reduced due to the dismissals.

Rapper Chris Brown Parking Violations

Handicapped spaces are attractive to drivers because they are usually larger than other spaces to accommodate wheelchair accessible vans and other vehicles with mobility equipment. Law enforcement officials in California and across the nation take parking violations of handicapped spaces very seriously in most cases because it is important to allow citizens with disabilities access to their homes.

Rapper Chris Brown Parking Violations


Swedish Paralympic Gold Medalist Sets Alcatraz Swim Record

Anders Olsson Paraplegic Alcatraz SwimmerIn the “Swim with the Centurions” race from Alcatraz, a 45-year-old paraplegic Swede competed against swimmers who have the use of both legs, and he beat them, proving that athletes with disabilities can compete and win in open events. That paraplegic Swedish swimmer is Anders Olsson, who set a new record for the feat of swimming 2.6 kilometers in San Francisco Bay from the Alcatraz prison island to the California shore, despite being paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair since the mid-1990s.

Anders Olsson Paraplegic Alcatraz Swimmer in San FranciscoOlsson, a competitive athlete in disabled sports events and Paralympic gold medalist, swam the frigid cold waters of San Francisco Bay in 24 minutes and 32 seconds, 4 minutes faster than the second place swimmer. His time is also a new record for the Alcatraz swim, disability or no disability. According to news sources, Olsson’s competitors gave him the nickname “The Swedish Torpedo” for his speed. Not only is he the first handicapped swimmer to win the race, he is also the oldest.

Anders Olsson Paraplegic Swedish Swimmer“I didn’t think it was true that I won. Then I thought it was really amazing since they had actually laughed at me when I came here to compete,” Olsson told Swedish news station TV4.

The Alcatraz Classic race is meant to recreate the escape of two prisoners, Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris, who swam the cold waters of San Francisco Bay to freedom in 1962. This year’s Alcatraz Classic swim competition was groundbreaking because not only is this the first time a paraplegic swimmer has entered the annual race, but the handicapped swimmer won the race.

Anders Olsson Paraplegic Alcatraz SwimmerAccording to swimming news source, The Swimmer’s Circle, Olsson was a promising hockey player and competitive swimmer in his youth before a spinal injury caused by weight-lifting ended his career in the mid-1990s. After several grueling surgeries and further injuries to his spine, Olsson suffered an accident that led to paraplegia. Not only did Olsson lose the use of both legs, but his lung capacity was also reduced. He also battled a morphine addiction, before finding swimming again on a friend’s dare in 2002. That dare turned into an obsession that snapped him back into life, and he’s been unstoppable ever since.

Anders Olsson Paralylmpic Swimmer Winning Gold in Beijing 2008Olsson went on to train for a 3-kilometer swim in 2002, and he became a gold medalist in the 2004 Paralympic games. Since then, he has won six Paralympic medals and has been named Sweden’s Handicapped Athlete of the Year twice.

Anders Olsson Paralylmpic Swimmer Winning Gold in Beijing 2008The “Iron Man,” as he is known back in Sweden, has a great motto for us all: “Believe in yourself, nothing is impossible.”



Vet with Muscular Dystrophy Beat Medicaid Fraud from Wheelchair

Richard West fought Medicaid Fraud from his Wheelchair

The fight against Medicaid fraud reached a milestone when a feisty Vietnam veteran named Richard West, who has muscular dystrophy, blew the whistle from his wheelchair and ultimately was awarded $15 million dollars for his persistence. The charges were levied against Maxim Healthcare for defrauding the government by making false and undocumented Medicaid claims. Maxim is a large, privately held, Maryland-based medical staffing company with over 300 offices in 40 states, and they were ordered to pay over $150 million in damages, fines, and reimbursement to the government and individuals they scammed like West.

West first encountered the scam when Medicaid told him that he had maxed out his benefits in 2004. The 63-year-old New Jersey vet looked into his bills and found that a medical agency that provides home health aides was billing Medicaid for services he never received, including nurse visits and mobility equipment. In his efforts to uncover the scam, West first tried to get government officials to investigate Maxim Healthcare. When that failed, he took matters into his own hands by filing a lawsuit. As a result of his lawsuit, the government uncovered that Maxim had been submitting false, undocumented claims between 2003 and 2009 totaling more than $60 million in fraudulent Medicaid reimbursements, as well as operating unlicensed healthcare staffing offices in five states.

Richard West Beat Medicaid Fraud from his Wheelchair

In a landmark decision, Maxim was ordered to pay over $120 in penalties and reimbursements for the fraudulent claims made to Medicaid, as well as over $8 million in damages to the Veterans Administration. The company also had to pay around $20 million in fines to the federal government for defrauding them. Because of his efforts to take Maxim to court and hold them accountable for their actions, Richard West received a portion of the settlement.

The tenacious veteran is an example of why beneficiaries of Medicaid and Social Security benefits need to stay vigilant with their own healthcare bills to help fight against the billions of dollars in fraud that goes unreported each year. West was quoted on his website as saying, “From my wheelchair, on a ventilator and oxygen, I have spent the last seven years in this fight. Sometimes the good guy wins. Anyone who suspects fraud needs to speak up; it’s the right thing to do.”

Richard West in His Wheelchair

As part of the settlement, West received $15.4 million in damages because of the fraudulent claims. When asked what West was going to spend his money on, he replied that he will get a new wheelchair accessible van, make improvements on his home, as well as donate to charities that help individuals with disabilities and conditions like muscular dystrophy.

The winnings are a bit of a mixed blessing, however, as noted by West’s attorney. “He no longer qualifies for Medicaid,” she stated with a smile.


Paraplegic Pilot Completes Solo Flight Around the World

Dave Sykes Paraplegic Solo Flight

Back in May, we told you about paraplegic pilot, David Sykes, taking off from England on his solo flight to Australia. Recently, Sykes completed that charity solo flight that took him across the globe in a microlight aircraft. Sykes’ solo flight was planned to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Amy Johnson‘s completion of the first female solo flight to Australia. With this flight challenge, Sykes also raised money for a charity in his local area, the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, which provides air ambulance service for over 5 million people in Yorkshire, England.

Dave Sykes' Motorcycle Accident
The motorcycle accident that left Dave Sykes paralyzed in 1993.

The British pilot, who lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 1993, left York, England in late April 2011 to fly around the globe and land in Sydney, Australia four months later. Sykes’ website chronicled his amazing journey, which took him over 17 countries. He made stops in order to refuel his plane; some stops were overnight, allowing Sykes to rest up for the next leg of the trip.

Sykes also had to make special conversions to his light aircraft. Even though his mircolight aircraft conformed to stringent British air safety requirements, as well as including mobility equipment for the pilot, he needed special permissions to land and fly through several countries. Sykes managed his courageous flight with the support of friends and individuals around the world, who followed his progress using satellites and contact with air traffic control centers.

Dave Sykes Paraplegic Solo Pilot

This flight has been the first time a paraplegic pilot has flown across the globe from the UK to Australia, and it stands as proof that individuals with physical disabilities can achieve great things. Not only did Sykes overcome his own physical challenges in order to complete the flight, but he also overcame the physical challenges presented by the flight itself, enduring extreme temperatures and weather conditions.

Dave Sykes Sydney View
Photo snapped by Dave Sykes while flying above Sydney harbor.

Sykes underwent many trials during the 11,600 mile glove-spanning flight, including torrential rain, high winds, sandstorms, lightning, and extreme temperatures. Because he was flying over so many different kinds of terrain, from baking deserts to tropical forests, Sykes faced extreme weather challenges.

High winds pushed his plane off the runway in Timor Kupang, causing a wheel to be ripped off his aircraft; sandstorms in Saudi Arabia reduced his visibility to zero; heavy rains caused the cockpit to fill up with water in Burma; high winds in Pakistan also blew him off into a ditch, requiring a rescue from 20 airport staff. At one point, Sykes even broke his wrist, but the courageous pilot didn’t let that stop him.

With his journey complete, Sykes hopes that his achievement proves that individuals with physical disabilities can overcome any challenge to achieve their goals.


Environment, Genetics Trigger Multiple Sclerosis

UC Irvine Multiple Sclerosis Research Center

Multiple sclerosis results from a complex influence of genetics and environment. This interaction is what researchers with the UC Irvine Multiple Sclerosis Research Center are striving to define. Understanding the trigger(s) will not only eventually lead to a cure, but also can help in the short-term by offering ways to personalize therapies and treatments.

“We’ve taken a giant first step toward understanding this,” said study leader Dr. Michael Demetriou, a UCI neurologist and associate director of the Multiple Sclerosis Research Center. Demetriou and colleagues identified how certain environmental factors like metabolism and vitamin D3 (obtained through either sunlight exposure or diet) interact with certain genes and converge. A critical cellular function is altered, and the neurodegenerative disease develops.

UCI neurologist Dr. Michael Demetriou

Specifically, four genes are involved — interleukin-7 receptor-alpha, interleukin-2 receptor-alpha, MGAT1 and CTLA-4 –- and the critical cellular function that’s altered is how specific sugars are added to proteins. Virtually all cell-surface proteins are modified with complex sugars to help form a molecular “net” that controls clustering, signaling, and receptors like the immune system T-cell. If these proteins’ sugar-modification is reduced, the “net” is weakened and neural degeneration begins. The researchers also discovered that a dietary supplement known as N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc, a simple sugar related to glucosamine) is able to suppress this process.

Link between environment & genetics in triggering MS?

Production of those complex sugars is regulated by both metabolic and enzymatic functions. A genetically at-risk person’s metabolism can affect the amount of sugars attaching to proteins, thus being a factor in whether MS develops. Their enzymatic functions can be altered by the genetic risk factors and vitamin D3, which also may or may not lead to MS. The research has narrowed down to this mystery, and so this is what Dr. Michael Demetriou and his team are trying to crack.

Their research may open up entirely new areas of medicine and hope, as these sugars have also been implicated in diabetes and cancer.


More Ohio Motorists Getting Handicapped Parking Placards

More Ohio Handicapped Parking Placards Being Issued

A decade ago, Ohio’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles was issuing maybe half as many handicapped-parking placards as today. In fact, in 2010 the state issued more than 320,000 placards – more than the years 2001 and 2002 combined. That brought the 2010 total number of valid placard holders to over 1 million Ohio residents (10% of the state’s population).

Ohio’s population may simply be aging, though 1,082 tickets were issued for handicapped-parking violations. A large portion of the placards, while valid, may not be used by the person to whom it was issued. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles just recently began a crackdown, estimating that as many as a third of the placards displayed on their public streets are being used illegally.

Ohio Handicapped Placards by Year via The Columbus Dispatch

Kay Grier, executive director of the Ohio Statewide Independent Living Council, said, “It’s one of my pet peeves… I don’t know if it’s just not important to them or what,” and urged Ohio’s officials to follow California and also enforce handicapped-parking rules. Ohio officials began to listen in Columbus. Their city council raised handicapped parking fines 30%; Officials had sought an increase from $250 to $350, but the Council opted to push it to the limit, the maximum allowed under state law: $500.

A prescription from a healthcare provider is required to obtain a placard, and another change has been initiated: shorter durations. Previously, placards could remain valid for 2 or 5 years (renewable). Now, placard durations can be as short as 2 months.

Have you experienced any annoyances obtaining or utilizing your handicapped-parking placard? Have you ever seen people you suspect are misusing a tag or sticker or placard? Did you bring attention to it? Did anyone of authority react with interest?

Ohio Handicapped Parking Placard