Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Alumnus helps disabled earn college degrees
By Rebecca Wyatt Thomas, OU Web Writer
Joseph Drew, CAS ’71, has a lot on his plate. His is a political science professor at Kent State University in Ohio, where he also serves as coordinator of the Kent State Master of Public Administration Program. It wasn’t enough. Drew went searching for something that would provide him more fulfillment. He found it in creating a program that will help those with disabilities, including injured soldiers at Veterans Affairs hospitals, earn their college degrees. For his work, Drew was honored with the Coleman Foundation’s 2008 Educator of the Year for College/University Award.
“Data indicates that half of quadriplegics would like to kill themselves if they could. The reason they don’t is because they can’t. I want to help them give their lives some meaning again,” said Drew.
Drew works with people who are quadriplegic or are blind and assists them in getting into an online degree program and connecting them with the assistive technology necessary to be successful. Through a lab at Kent State and the local VA hospital, Drew and his team train the students before getting them into online courses.
The lab at Kent State, which is for assessing and training, is funded by the State of Ohio Board of Regents grant. The VA medical center funds the lab which is available for those returning from war who have been paralyzed or blinded.
“They participate in accelerated programs to complete their degrees. It’s not to say they can’t take classes on campus, but some of them are prone to illnesses, which puts a crimp in their college education,” Drew said.
Drew was inspired by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. Frankel researched how people who were suffering, such as those in concentration camps, could still find meaning in their lives. Drew said people who see the meaning, often question what meaning they give their lives. Frankl argued that people who can’t answer that question are living a life that is purposeless. Drew set out to help people give meaning to their lives while finding meaning in his own.
“I was living my life. I was teaching, but it didn’t have enough meaning for me. I development an online program, but I still wanted to do more,” Drew said. He began targeting the online program to those with disabilities. For five years, he worked to secure assistive technology and resources for those who wanted to earn their college degrees but because of blindness or paralysis may not have been able to.
Drew worked to attain screen readers that read text aloud to those who are unable. He also got scanning software that scans a document right side up, no matter what direction it was scanned. The documents must be right-side up for the reading software to work. This enables a blind person to scan and read without having to wait for assistance. Drew also got a Braille printer, which works with another printer to print letters over the Braille so blind students can read their work with a professor.
For those who suffer from paralysis, Drew obtained devices that control computers with eye tracking or head movement, since not all paralyzed people are able to speak clearly.
“The idea is to make the students somewhat independent so when they go out and look for jobs they have a degree and the independence and can get hired,” Drew said.
With others from Kent State, Drew has worked to develop a device that will allow people without the use of their hands to turn on a computer.
“If they aren’t able to turn on the computer, they aren’t able to do any of this,” Drew said.
The device, which sells for $3.95 plus shipping, allows even the slightest movement to activate the computer. Hewlett Packard has expressed an interest in making this device available on their equipment in the future. Drew said the device, like his development of the program and the lab, is strictly a public service and the cost covers the expenses to produce the device and send it to those who need it.
The lab at Kent State is open to all students who want to explore online learning and not limited to just Kent State. Drew and his team help students identify what online programs are appropriate for them and are tracking the students to find out how they do once they have the training and the tools necessary to succeed.
Drew said he has provided his services to the VA hospital on a voluntary basis and is looking for additional funding to expand the program. Right now, he works with one hospital with young soldiers who have been wounded in combat. He said many of those students start at local community colleges and then transfer to other universities. Since they often leave the area, tracking them is much more difficult.
“The goal is very clear. I want this program to be available at every major VA hospital in the country. Each hospital would need to partner with a university for guidance. Not only would the veterans be able to learn the skills necessary to earn a degree but the grad students would learn about rehabilitation,” Drew said. He said for the VA hospitals, the program would require no new funding for equipment, just a reallocation of funds. “I’m just trying to help the people who are in trouble. I have learned a lot and seen a lot from this experience.”
Drew plans to work with the Cleveland Sight Center and apply for a grant to provide the same educational services to blind children in the area. In the future, he would also like to offer the program to military hospitals. Drew is working toward his goals slowly, focusing on the quality of the program.
“I don’t want to have more students than I can handle. The worst thing to do is to promise things and then not be able to deliver,” Drew said.
For more information on his program, or the device that allows those without use of their hands to turn on the computer, contact Drew at firstname.lastname@example.org.