Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Profile highlight: Ken Behring and the Wheelchair Foundation

I had the good fortune of meeting Ken Behring once a few years ago. He was on a wheelchair donation program in Bali, and I happened to be there on assignment separately when I ran into him. I had no idea who he was, and probably it was good that way. I tend to be afraid of people with money or fame, tending to run in the opposite direction.

Behring was a kindly, elderly American gentleman I ran into while eating dinner at a local Balinese restaurant. We were being hosted by the same individual, and over dinner he told me that he was in town to "give away wheelchairs to a handicapped center in the area." Our conversations over the next day largely centered around the lessons he had learned in his life. It was only several days after our encounter that I realized how much wealth he really had, and I was moved by his story.

Behring's story is the classic American rags-to-riches tale. He grew up dirt poor in the mid-west, and worked his way up. With a high school diploma and a whole lot of motivation, he started a few companies, built a few cities, and owned the Seattle Seahawks, among other things. But it was during a chance trip to eastern Europe that he found his real purpose in life. He had agreed to drop off a shipment of wheelchairs on his private airplane enroute to a business destination. He was struck by the plight of the disabled in the developing world and promptly started the Wheelchair Foundation. The rest is history. When we met, he told me that he had entered the most important phase of his life...the earlier parts of his life when he had made his wealth were prologue to his "real life." He now works to build better quality wheelchairs, and to date has donated approximately 750,000 wheelchairs.

You can read more about Behring in his touching autobiography: Road to Purpose

Monday, January 12, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Emmanuel's Gift

In another documentary, watch Emmanuel's Gift, the story of a orphaned, disabled Ghanaian who rode across Africa on his bicycle bringing a message of hope and changing perceptions about physical handicaps. You can see the trailer here and below:

From the World Bank profile on him:

Emmanuel was born in Ghana, with a deformed right leg and meager expectations. Abandoned by his father and shunned by his community, his path was pre-determined—become a beggar and/or rely on others for survival. But Emmanuel chose a different road. He would not sacrifice his dignity and be forced to the streets like others in his situation.

At the age of 13, he took matters into his own hands and started a shoeshine business, earning $2 a day. Building on the pride he felt in his work and accomplishment, Emmanuel set out to show the nation of Ghana that physically challenged individuals can actively shape their destiny—not just meekly accept it.

After receiving a bike from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, using his left leg only, Emmanuel pedaled 610 kilometers (almost 380 miles) across Ghana. He was determined to spread his message: disability does not mean inability. Impressed by Emmanuel’s thirst for equality and his hunger for change, CAF flew him to the 2002 San Diego Triathlon Challenge to participate in the 56-mile bike portion of the event. There he met world-class athletes like Rudy Garcia-Tolson, Paul Martin and others, who accomplish tremendous feats with the aide of high-tech prosthetics. CAF and a key partner, Loma Linda University Rehabilitation Institute, wondered if such a prosthetic might be the answer for Emmanuel, too.

Even after a week’s stay at the world-renowned rehab facility, Emmanuel was still having doubts about the surgery. In Ghana, such an operation could prove to be fatal. After sharing his fears with Rudy, who had both legs amputated above the knee at age five, he made up his mind. Emmanuel would undergo surgical amputation of his right leg above the knee, and receive a new prosthesis from Loma Linda. He would stand for the first time on two feet.

Today, Emmanuel can run, ride a bike using both legs, and wear trousers. He stands proudly, supported by his inner tenacity and strength of character—rather than the crutches upon which he once relied. After winning the prestigious Casey Martin Award from Nike, he decided to apply his $25,000 grant—matched by CAF—toward continuing to change attitudes and lives in his homeland, where one of 10 citizens is disabled. CAF’s Emmanuel Fund provides education and sports equipment, and ultimately, Emmanuel hopes to build a sports center for physically challenged people of Ghana.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Links I liked

1. Its true...coke can clean your toilet (I just tried!). You can learn how here.

2. Hard to believe, but there are good leaders in Africa. Chris Blattman sheds some light on the subject.

3. Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin suggests a movie out of Israel that is surprisingly relevant and poignant to the current issues.

4. If you are the reading type, Small Business Trends gives a list of the best Business books as voted by the public.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Murderball

If you want an eye opening look at disabilities, sport, and competition, watch Murderball, a documentary that follows the US Quad Rugby Team. Uplifting, inspiring, and eye-opening, it is an excellent shot of hope in the arm... see the trailer here and below:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Paralympic Athletes

The physically handicapped need role models. This is why I love the Paralympics and the Special Olympics. Not to put them in the same category in any way as they are very different events and competitors, but they do have their similarities in that they bring together physically and mentally handicapped people from around the world to compete in the spirit of sportsmanship. The lessons from these games are true testament to the strength of the human spirit.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has done a phenomenal job of capturing these moments and sharing them with the world. They have their own youtube channel, which I would highly recommend watching. Below is one of their highlight reels.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Technology for the physically handicapped: Hugh Herr

I have seen and met Hugh Herr. I had first seen him on an episode of Scientific American Frontiers where he was showing some of the technologies he had developed for the physically challenged. When I first met him, I was struck by his intelligence and soft spoken manner. I never looked at his gait. I had no reason to. When I was asked to, I wondered why. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about it. He had a slight swagger but nothing that stood out. Later I learned that he was a double-amputee, and was testing out biomechanic prosthetics on himself.

Herr is a professor at the MIT Media Lab, where he heads a biomechantronics (biology, mechanical engineering and electronics) group designing prosthetics for the handicapped. Earlier this year, his research helped truly level the playing field for an Olympic athlete. For the first time this year, an athlete with an artificial foot was able to compete in a track event alongside able-bodied athletes. Read the story here.

More about Herr and his inventions:
The Courage to Give (Profile of Herr)
New Horizons in Orthotics and Prosthetics: Merging Bodies and Machines (webcast)
Webcast presentation by Herr about his research
The World's First Powered Ankle Technology Review
A Question of Mind over Matter Wired

Monday, January 5, 2009

Technology for the physically handicapped: TV Raman

Google's T.V. Raman designs technology for the visually impaired. (photo courtesy of NY Times)

Probably the most difficult aspect of working in the developing world is the general and blatant disregard that the physically and mentally handicapped are treated with. The poor and uneducated, who are already struggling to survive, see mentally and physically disabled family members as punishments from god or works of black magic (this I've heard with my own ears!). So I am always looking for technologies or ideas that are working to even the playing field for them.

The NY Times did an article about Google's T.V. Raman, who works to do exactly that. Visually challenged himself, he designs web-based (and other) technologies that cater to the blind, including Google's Android phone.

With no buttons to guide the fingers on its glassy surface, the touch-screen cellphone may seem a particularly daunting challenge. But Mr. Raman said that with the right tweaks, touch-screen phones — many of which already come equipped with GPS technology and a compass — could help blind people navigate the world.

“How much of a leap of faith does it take for you to realize that your phone could say, ‘Walk straight and within 200 feet you’ll get to the intersection of X and Y,’ ” Mr. Raman said. “This is entirely doable.”

ADVOCATES for the blind have long complained that technology companies have done a generally poor job of making their products accessible. The Web, while opening many opportunities for blind people, is still riddled with obstacles. And sophisticated screen-reader software, which turns documents and Web pages into synthesized speech, can cost more than $1,000. Even with a screen reader, many sites are hard to navigate.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind reached a settlement of a landmark class-action lawsuit against one company whose site advocates found unusable, Target. In the settlement, the retailer agreed to make its Web site accessible to blind people. The federation assesses the usability of Web sites and currently certifies only a handful as being fully accessible.[...]
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