Friday, November 30, 2012

Animal Therapy: Yea or 'Neigh'?

There seems to be an undeniable relationship between humans and animals, especially when it comes to innate, mutual trust. Animal therapy, especially equine therapy, used to be regarded as a “hokey” or “crackpot” alternative method of therapy used almost exclusively by the wealthy elite. However, the positive effects of animal therapy or even the mere presence of animals is hard to ignore.

My dog, Koby, can be difficult to get along with. She's adorable, but she is unpredictable and can be aggressive when strangers approach her. That's why my stepmom was nervous when her friend, Nanette, came over with her daughter, Taelor. Taelor had Prader-Willi syndrome, and my stepmom didn't want Koby to scare or possibly harm her, so when Tae and Nanette arrived, she grabbed Koby and started to lead her outside.

“You don't have to do that,” Nanette said. The idea of having Koby in the room made my stepmom anxious, but Nanette insisted. “Don't put her outside. Trust me.”

So Koby stayed in. What happened next was astounding. Koby walked up to Tae and sniffed her curiously as dogs will do. Tae fearlessly reached out and pet Koby with a calm gentleness that suggested the two had been longtime friends. Koby didn't growl, tense up, or raise her hair like she normally does upon meeting new people. Somehow there was an automatic exchange of trust between Tae and Koby, an understanding that each needed to be gentle with the other.

I couldn't tell you how these two were able to communicate so naturally with one another, but it seems that this subconscious connection between people and animals and the mutual benefits of these companionships are particularly strong within the disabled community.

Horses are often used to help people with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy improve their posture, balance, and mobility. However, the healing powers of horses, like those of other animals, go beyond the physical. Animals can be great supporters because they are naturally nonjudgemental. They don't care whether or not you can hit a baseball the farthest or paint a picture that looks like a photograph. Animals are extremely accepting creatures. As long as you are loving to them, they will love you back no matter what.

Animals are also great teachers. They can teach us how to be gentle, kind, and respectful, and how to care for living things. Animals also teach us that we are needed and that we are important. They are always happy to see us, and they let us know that even on those days when we feel completely worthless, we aren't. They teach us that we matter and that we are wanted and loved.

One of my favorite parts about being around animals is that they have this strange ability to take away any anxiety, stress, or fear I may have been feeling. Sometimes, as was the case with Tae and Koby, the animal's anxieties can be alleviated, too. (Tae did a much better job at calming Koby down than I ever could.) Studies have shown how effectively animals can make people relax. They have a sort of magical effect on people that can be very beneficial when trying to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings or situations. Animals make us brave, and they love us for it!

Whether the scientific community says there is enough evidence to support the effectiveness of animal therapy or not, I say (in all of my scientific knowledge) yea to animals and yea to people. What I have seen has been enough to make me believe in the healing nature of the human-animal relationship. And besides, who could deny an opportunity to play with soft, fluffy animals?

Click here to learn about Taelor's story.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Doorbuster Discrimination: The Inaccessibility of Black Friday

I hope everyone is recovering well from the holiday and post-Thanksgiving shopping! This post is going to be a little less formal than usual (so if you prefer it this way, leave a comment saying so), filled mostly with musings brought about by the small controversy regarding “creeping” Black Friday and the general chaos that comes with holiday shopping.

Since 2008, when a Walmart employee was trampled to death by the store's patrons, much attention has been given to the violence and barbarism that occurs on the day after Thanksgiving (and now, to the frustration of many, Thanksgiving day itself). It's an interesting—if not a bit humorous—phenomenon: People are risking their lives for 30% off entertainment systems. All of this absurdity got me wondering about the inevitable discrimination that occurs during this consumerist frenzy. I began to wonder about the accessibility of Black Friday sales to the disabled community.

Supposed once-a-year deals have the power to turn respectable people into charging savages with no apparent regard for human life. Employees and shoppers alike suffer injuries and can die in the midst of the frenzy, largely due to panic-ridden impatience. So what does this mean for the man with cerebral palsy who has to navigate an ocean of manic flesh and shopping cart riot shields so that he gets his fair shot at a cheap television? What happens to the girl who takes a bit longer to count her money at the register? What about the physically challenged who have to park at the back of the parking lot because the handicapped spaces are illegally filled? Will they get overtaken by the mobs and be subjected to verbal and physical abuse because people simply cannot wait to empty their pockets?

I did some internet searching and came across an article that had been posted earlier today about a man who felt he had been discriminated against by Walmart. The man, Stephen Constable, usually walks with a cane or walker and uses a motorized shopping cart when at Walmart. When Constable and his wife went to the store, not for Black Friday deals, but for some groceries, they found that the motorized carts were not available to use. When Constable asked an assistant manager about the shopping cart situation, he was told that Walmart did not want handicapped people in the store that night because they may get hurt.

KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather

I kept looking, curious to see whether similar situations had arisen. I came across a thread on a Best Buy forum. Someone asked whether or not Best Buy had any accommodations for the disabled, as the exact deal he was looking for was not available online. The eventual (and final) post to the thread was from Best Buy, somewhat skirting the issue of disability discrimination but ultimately answering the asker's question regarding the television he wanted. The most interesting thing about the thread, however, was not the apparent lack of accommodation, but the annoyance and hostility the question aroused in a certain other poster. I highly suggest giving the thread a look:

Many people have been expressing concerns about how increasingly early doorbuster sales are ruining the integrity of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner spent in the company of friends and family rather than frenzied shoppers. I have also noticed a lot of people bypassing Black Friday sales entirely, the misery of the chaos outweighing the potential good deals. It's easy to do for those who have experienced Black Friday and all of its absurdity, but perhaps some consideration ought to be given to those who don't have the opportunity to partake in those sales at all. Shouldn't we all have the same opportunity to face the madness and witness the insanity?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ugly Law

Did you know that it used to be against the law to be “ugly”?

Up until the 1970s, there was a law in Portland and many other cities that allowed for the arrest of anyone who was so “maimed, mutilated, or diseased” that his or her appearance disturbed the general public. It was an aesthetic law designed to keep cities gilded, much like homeowner associations are designed to uphold a certain visual standard in a given neighborhood. In 1972, two Portland State University students were arrested at the Hotcake House on Powell Boulevard under this law. Their story is documented in a movie called Music Within.

Richard Pimentel, a Portland native, grew up in an emotionally abusive home where he suffered neglect from his mentally ill mother. After his father died, Pimentel was handed off to his grandmother. He didn't speak until he was six years old and was thus declared “retarded” by a school guidance counselor. However, when he did start speaking, he knew he had found his passion, his “music within,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes described it. In spite of living in the dressing rooms of a strip club his dad had worked for (not as a dancer, for those who were wondering), Pimentel won two high school speech competitions. He was subsequently offered a scholarship to PSU by Dr. Ben Padrow, founder of the College Bowl. But when Pimentel went to see Padrow, he was told that he needed to live life and earn a point of view. Pimentel could definitely speak—he was gifted—but he had nothing to say. So instead of going to college, Pimentel went to Vietnam.

A mortar explosion sent Pimentel home early, but his hearing stayed in Vietnam. In an instant, he went from a disgruntled young man trying to find a point of view to a disabled veteran with little more than a shrill ringing in his ears. He had tinnitus and was almost completely deaf. He was still determined to be a professional speaker, so he enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program for returning soldiers. However, the Veterans Administration told him the could not justify paying for his college because he was deaf and therefore wouldn't be able to make anything of himself. Pimentel went back to Dr. Padrow, who helped convince the VA to give Pimentel a full scholarship, including room and board.

This was a necessary development in Pimentel's life because had he not gone to PSU, he would not have met Art Honeyman, the man who would change his life and, consequently, the lives of countless others. One day, Pimentel saw Honeyman, who had cerebral palsy, struggling to open a can of Coca-Cola. He went over to help Honeyman and told him not to bother trying to talk to him because he was deaf. Honeyman grabbed Pimentel and threw out a witty comeback nonetheless. To Pimentel's surprise, he could hear Honeyman. His voice was within his hearing range. Honeyman was the only person Pimentel could hear, and Pimentel was the only person who could understand Honeyman. Naturally, a strong friendship developed.

One night, the duo went out to get pancakes in celebration of Honeyman's birthday and were not well received by the new waitress:
"This waitress had never seen Art or anyone like him; she just stared," Pimentel recalls. "Finally, she said, 'I can't believe that something like you would come someplace where people are trying to eat. I won't serve you because I don't even know if you're a human being.'
"And she ended by saying, 'I thought people like you were supposed to die at birth.'
"I was stunned; I didn't know what to say. And Art turned to me and said, 'Why is the waitress talking about you this way? I don't think you look any worse than you usually do.'"*
The police were called and Pimentel and Honeyman were put in jail under the Ugly Law. This was the moment that changed Pimentel's passion from speech to sociology. He went on to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act and trained companies around the country in hiring and working with the disabled community. Honeyman became a professor at PSU. He and Pimentel remained friends until Honeyman's death in 2008.

The Ugly Laws that existed in many cities are no longer in place thanks in large part to these Portland heroes, and their contribution to widespread acceptance of people with disabilities has had profound effects on innumerable people. I highly recommend watching Music Within, which is currently streaming on Netflix.

*This quote was taken from a 2008 article published by Portland State Magazine.

Friday, November 9, 2012

An Interview with Jimmy Lorang, Former Camp Counselor

Earlier this week, I got to meet up with former Kiwanis Camp counselor, Jimmy Lorang, to talk about his experience with Kiwanis this past summer.

As I was walking from my English class to Seattle's Best Coffee, where I was to meet Jimmy for the first time, I was suddenly overcome with an embarrassed anxiety: I did not know anything about Jimmy, including what he looked like, and I assumed he knew as little about me. How was I going to know which guy was the one I was supposed to talk to? But I didn't need to worry; Jimmy was sitting at the bar-style counter along the window wearing a blue sweatshirt with the words “Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp” printed across the chest. “I almost wore the gray one with the tree on it,” he smiled, clearly showing his Kiwanis pride.

Jimmy is currently a senior at Portland State, where he is studying psychology. When it came time for him to choose a senior capstone project, he chose to be a counselor at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp after browsing through a list of capstones because it had been recommended to him by a few people and because the idea of a hands-on program appealed to him. “Writing grants isn't really my thing,” he says, “and Kiwanis seemed more rewarding. You get to make an impact on people's lives.” Not to mention, of course, that the two-week duration added to the appeal.

However, the brevity of MHKC became irrelevant to Jimmy, who had the opportunity to go back for two more sessions after he had finished his original session as camp counselor. Despite all of the fun to be had at Kiwanis, being a counselor comes with many challenges and responsibilities, and occasionally people are sent home because the challenge is too great. Watching people leave early is unfortunate, but it worked out twice in Jimmy's favor; He got invited back to sub in for a couple of counselors. “I got to experience Kiwanis more than any other counselor. It was great. I felt like an honorary counselor or something.”

That isn't to say that Jimmy did not have his fair share of fears and challenges to overcome. Going into the program, one of Jimmy's main concerns involved personal care. He was worried he might overstep his boundaries or make a camper uncomfortable, fears which were augmented by difficulties in communication between counselor and camper. However, Jimmy quickly learned to move past these obstacles so that everyone could enjoy the camp to the fullest extent. “This is an opportunity for everyone—campers and counselors alike—to have fun and be themselves without any judgment,” he says.

Throughout our conversation, Jimmy often repeated that MHKC truly is fun for everyone involved. Just as often, though, he stressed the seriousness and the responsibility of being a counselor, noting that the most important quality a counselor should have is patience. He says that it's also necessary to be flexible and innovative, but if you don't have patience and you aren't willing to step up to help people have a good time, then perhaps Kiwanis isn't the program for you. “It's not a cakewalk,” Jimmy smiles. He affirms, however, that feeling of accomplishment at the end of camp is extremely rewarding. Going into Kiwanis, Jimmy admitted, he wasn't sure if he would be a successful counselor. He wanted to be, of course, and was very interested in learning from a psychological perspective. He soon learned, though, that the best way to experience Kiwanis Camp was to forget all the labels, diagnoses, and papers and just get to know the campers for the people they are. Once he did that, he was able to create stronger bonds with his campers, Eric, Tori, Sully, and Michael, with whom Jimmy says he had a great time.

The sky was growing dark, and I, wearing a dress, was getting chilly, so Jimmy and I drew our conversation to a close. When asked if he had anything else to tell people who are thinking about being counselors, he thought for a moment and concluded, “Kiwanis had a profound impact on me. It changed my focus from psychology to special education. The personal growth I experienced...that was huge for me, and the connection with others was phenomenal. I felt a great sense of accomplishment.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mind Control: The Future of Prosthetics

I got my information from an article I read in a special issue of Discovery Magazine.  Click the link below to read the original article.

Imagine prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the mind. Hugh Herr, sometimes referred to as a real-life bionic man, is busy creating exactly that.

In January, 1982, Herr and a friend went hiking on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. As they neared the summit, the weather turned foul, and with dangerous gusts and limited visibility, the two got lost. They were nearly dead when they were found three days later. Both had severe frostbite and would need amputations. Herr had both of his legs removed just below the knees, which was devastating for the 17-year-old who was a gifted rock climber. But rather than succumb to depression, Herr decided that he would make the best of his situation. Beginning by taking his bulky, plaster prosthetics and messing around with their design so that he could feel as natural walking as he did climbing, Herr found passion in creating better prosthetic technology.

Herr started by gluing climbing rubber to the bottoms of his new legs rather than wearing climbing shoes. Then he reshaped the feet themselves, reducing their size to give him an advantage when standing on small footholds and rocks. He made limbs that were height adjustable, which made it easier to reach handholds on rock faces, and he made his legs extremely lightweight. But that was just the beginning. Today he runs around Walden Pond on motorized bionic limbs of his own design that adjust 500 times per second.

Hugh Herr, Bionic Man -- PART 1 from THE NEXT LIST on Vimeo.

His invention, the PowerFoot BiOM, is the world's first robotic ankle-foot prosthesis, and in 2011, it was released to the public. It is a considerable improvement over previous prosthetic limbs, allowing users to push off the ground with seven times the power of other prosthetic models while using less energy, and it has the ability to react to changes in pace and terrain. Herr's creation has had an incredible impact, but he is not willing to stop there. His goal is to link bionic limbs directly to the human nervous system, allowing users to control their artificial limbs through thought.

Unlike other scientists and engineers who are working on similar projects to connect man with machine, Herr and two others, Todd Kuiken and Richard Weir, are experimenting with nerve and muscle impulses rather than going directly into the brain with mini electrodes. That is, nerves that once sent signals to the feet are still there, they just don't have a place to send those signals. Herr hopes that his prosthetics will change that. He also hopes that as technology changes, so will attitudes. In the same way that people who wear glasses are no longer considered handicapped, so it will be for people with prosthetic limbs. “As the human machine interaction becomes more sophisticated,” Herr says, “we will see fewer and fewer disabilities. One day I will truly no longer be disabled and may be augmented in some ways.”

What do you think? Can Herr's mind-powered limbs become reality? If so, do you think they can be produced so that the general public can afford them? What do you think about improving attitudes by improving technology? Share your thoughts! This is exciting stuff!

Click to read the original article from Discovery Magazine.