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ADA25 Academic Panel discusses ways in which students, faculty are making a difference

“As a community of learners, we are in a unique environment where we can use our research and curriculum to equip our students with the tools to understand what it means to live with a disability,” said Provost Pam Benoit as she kicked off the ADA25 Celebration Series Academic Panel Tuesday, Oct. 13. 

Benoit highlighted the many ways in which Ohio University students and faculty are contributing to the improvement of the lives of those with disabilities living in Athens and beyond. 

Benoit introduced several members of the Bobcat community who would be speaking about their own contribution to the improvement initiative. The moderator of the panel was Carolyn Lewis, an instructor in the Scripps College of Communication and director emerita of the WOUB Center for Public Media, as well as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council for Disability and Accessibility Planning, the Steering Committee for implementing the university’s disability strategic plan, and the Athens City Commission on Disabilities.

First to speak was Gregory Kremer, chair of the department of mechanical engineering. He introduced three teams of his students who are currently working on their capstone projects under his guidance with the theme “Designing to Make a Difference.”

The teams of students introduced presented their capstone projects, all of which have the basis of helping individuals with disabilities. Two teams are working on developing a tricycle which is adaptable to the needs of children with all different types of physical disabilities. The last team is developing a lifting system for those with mobility-related disabilities, in which stairs would be able to collapse into a lift and then return to a stair form. 

Next to speak was Lynn Harter, an associate professor in the Scripps College of Communication. Harter is the co-director of the Barbara Geralds Institute for Storytelling and Social Impact. She spoke about her documentary for PBS, entitled “Creative Abundance,” which shows an alternative narrative of what it means to live with a disability and how to foster expression through the creative arts. 

“From my perspective, the desk can be a very dangerous place in which to watch the world,” said Harter. She explained how her class, Storytelling and the Social Impact, gets students involved in hands-on activities that help them develop skills in a more meaningful way. “Every class should involve ‘sweaty palms’,” she said, quoting one of her students. 

J. W. Smith was next on the panel to contribute. Smith is an associate professor in the School of Communication Studies. He teaches a class entitled Communicating with People with Physical Disabilities. He discussed the three main goals he tries to accomplish in his courses. 

First, he tries to come out of his own comfort zone as a blind man. 

“There are things that I can talk about from my perspective that are unique,” he explained. Smith said he allows his students to meet other people with disabilities, widening their perspective even more. 

“When students are able to meet someone with a disability and hear their story, that is a powerful experience,” he said. Finally, he likes to include simulated exercises. He discussed how integrating these exercises correctly can also be a powerful experience for his students.

Then, Diana Schwerha, an assistant professor in the department of industrial and systems engineering, spoke on the power of ergonomics. 

Ergonomics is the applied science of equipment design intended to maximize productivity. Schwerha discussed the experience of surveying Ohio University’s compliance with ADA code with one of her classes. For example, her students learned how to measure the exertion necessary to open a restroom door and how to set up experiments to test the optimal placement for toilet paper dispensers in relation to grab bars.

Finally, John McCarthy, associate professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders, talked about accessibility in today’s world. He asked everyone to take out their iPhones and look at the amount of accessibility features that are available for users with disabilities. In addition to having the ability to enlarge text, there are text-to-speech options, as well as controls for hearing aids. He applauded Apple for independently taking the initiative to include all of these features for those with disabilities.

“Challenges in using language or speech or both, can all be addressed by something you carry around in your pocket,” he said.

The panel concluded with a discussion in which students asked the professors questions on their field of study and asked how they themselves could take part in improving our community for persons living with disabilities. 

The ADA25 Academic Panel Discussion is part of a series of events at Ohio University celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.