Healthy People

No Barriers

OSU engineer Katharine Hunter-Zaworski designs mass-transit equipment that makes travel not only more accessible but also more dignified.

Access to mass transit opens the world to people with disabilities

By Lee Anna Sherman

At night when she dreams, Marlene Massey hikes the Cascades on sturdy legs. But when she gets up in the morning, a four-inch curb can stop her cold. That’s because the 50-year-old Corvallis woman is in a wheelchair after losing a big chunk of her cerebellum to brain surgery 12 years ago. The damage to her coordination, balance and muscle control was massive. Massey now treks up mountain trails only in the gentle forgetfulness of REM sleep. In the harsh light of day, she risks jamming the tires of her Breezy 600 in cracked sidewalks en route to the bus stop.

“I used to backpack in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness,” she reminisces, her speech slow and effortful. “Now, it’s a challenge just to cross the street.”

OSU engineer Katharine Hunter-Zaworski designs mass-transit equipment that makes travel not only more accessible but also more dignified. (Photo: Jan Sonnenmair)
Burke Hales, OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (Photo: Don Frank)

Making it easier for people like Massey to get around is the mission of OSU’s National Center for Accessible Transportation, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Under the leadership of engineer Katharine Hunter-Zaworski, experts in biomechanics, ergonomics and mechanical engineering design equipment for mass transit systems — everything from bus lifts to boarding ramps and jetliner lavatories (see sidebar). Basically, it’s hardware. But those precision-engineered pieces of plastic and metal signify a priceless intangible: personal freedom. For people whose mobility is limited by physical, sensory or cognitive impairment, devices such as OSU’s patented wheelchair “docking system” that engages automatically upon boarding can make the difference between dependence and self-reliance. Assistive gear lets people move through the world at will, come and go on their own terms, escape solitude and isolation. They can cast off the encumbrances of their disabilities to embrace the fullness of their capabilities.

Three words distill Hunter-Zaworski’s vision of accessible public transportation: safe, seamless, dignified. “These words, these ideas,” she says, “underlie everything we do.”

Attention to Dignity

With partners such as Boeing, Amtrak, Portland International Airport, Lane Transit District and Paralyzed Veterans of America, her team is forever honing the “trip chain,” the series of movements that takes you from your starting point to your destination. For a traveler to arrive with both body and dignity intact, each point along the way must be free of hazards, barriers and clumsy or awkward transfers from, say, a wheelchair into an airplane seat.

Tools for Access

Stories like this are what drive Hunter-Zaworski, a professor in OSU’s School of Civil and Construction Engineering. Canadian by birth, she began her career nearly three decades ago when she was the first woman to earn a mechanical engineering degree at the University of British Columbia. After getting her master’s in Tennessee and then designing shoulder joints for bilateral shoulder amputees in Toronto, she returned to Vancouver as director of rehabilitation engineering at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. There, she teamed with “MDs, OTs and physios” (doctors, occupational therapists, and physical therapists) to design custom equipment, including ergonomic seating systems and modified sporting gear, for individual patients. For one client, she developed a mechanical bed turner — a product now on the market and popular among parents whose children have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Another patient, a little boy suffering from spinal muscle atrophy, got his first taste of independent mobility when she devised one of the original kid-sized power wheelchairs with an add-on she called the “outboard motor.” This invention, too, was modified for the mass market and is widely distributed today.

Most of Kate Hunter’s clients, however, were young men with spinal cord injuries, many from diving accidents. When they died of complications from their injuries, the young engineer would suffer profound emotional pain.

About that time, Vancouver, B.C., was at the vanguard of the public-access movement, led in large part by two activist quadriplegics, Doug Mowat, a legislator, and Ed Desjardins, a founder of GF Strong. City officials recruited Hunter to oversee barrier-free design on their planned transit system, SkyTrain.

She had found her calling.

“I was 25, working with severely injured quadriplegics, most about my age, some on permanent respirators,” she recalls. “It was a harsh reality. On the SkyTrain project, I started to realize that instead of designing equipment for one patient at a time, I could open the world to thousands of people simultaneously by making transportation accessible to them.”

Hunter-Zaworski’s multidisciplinary team at the national center includes her husband, OSU assistant professor Joseph Zaworski, who was a consulting engineer in Corvallis when she met him in Albuquerque at a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. After running into him again the next year and liking his stated philosophy of life (“The purpose of life is to have fun”), she invited him to visit her in Vancouver. He gamely agreed to a hike on Cypress Mountain. What he didn’t know was that even in June, snow lingered on the wooded trails. His leather shoes were ruined. To make amends, she took him to lunch at an out-of-the-way bistro with the slyly romantic name, The Amorous Oyster. Their engagement followed within months.

After they married, she joined him in Corvallis to work on her Ph.D. Several years later, Hunter-Zaworski could be seen pushing a two-seat baby stroller along the spruce-shaded sidewalks and linoleum-floored corridors on campus. In fact, the couple’s twins played a role in their mom’s volunteer project for Oregon State, an assessment of accessibility of the university’s buildings.

“My twin stroller was the same width as an adult wheelchair,” she explains. “If the stroller didn’t fit through the door to a building, I couldn’t get to class — and neither could a person in a wheelchair.”

More than 30 percent of wheelchair-bound passengers report a “loss of self-respect” when traveling by air, according to a new study funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Surveying 2,756 respondents who are members of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Hunter-Zaworski and her team heard certain complaints over and over: Assistive personnel are often unaware of disability characteristics, fail to ask questions about the traveler’s needs and neglect to wait for instructions. Another big gripe: The helpers are not adequately concerned with the traveler’s dignity. Beefing up “traveler assistance training” for airport personnel is a key element of the center’s work.

On the day Massey tumbled down the stairs while getting off a city bus, her dignity suffered along with her body. Seeking to retain as much independence as possible after her rehabilitation therapy, Massey had chosen a walker over a wheelchair. Still unsteady on her feet, she usually used the mechanical lift to get on and off the bus. But one cool, autumn morning, she was running late for her volunteer shift at the library and tried to negotiate the steps without waiting for the lift. Her balance faltered. She fell hard. The bruises she got when she hit the concrete on Monroe Avenue, one of downtown Corvallis’s busiest streets, hurt less than her battered pride.

“I hated it,” she says. “I hate feeling weak and vulnerable.” A second fall a year later wrenched her hips and forced her into a chair for good.

Inclusive Design

Since then, she has relentlessly pushed the principle of “universal inclusive design.” Sitting at her desk in Owen Hall, she points to one convenient example: the lever-style handle on her office door. “That type of door handle is a universal design,” she says. “Not only is a lever easier to use than a knob for people with physical impairments, it’s also easier for anyone who has their hands full.”

Noting that the automatic garage-door opener every American takes for granted was originally an assistive device for a quadriplegic, and that the “curb cuts” built for wheelchairs are also handy for rolling suitcases and baby strollers, Hunter-Zaworski explains that the advantages of easier access do not accrue only to the 50 million Americans with disabilities, but rather to the whole community: the elderly and the obese, parents towing toddlers, patients recovering from surgeries, athletes suffering from sprains or breaks, shoppers lugging bags, travelers dragging luggage. “Everybody benefits,” Hunter-Zaworski says.

The next generation of assistive devices is already on the drawing board at OSU. Among them are rear-facing wheelchair restraints, real-time speech translation, ergonomic seat cushions and age-in-place technologies for boomers heading for retirement. “No-lift” transfer technologies will be big, too, bolstered by a finding of the April 2008 survey showing a strong preference for mechanical assistance over human assistance when moving from a wheelchair to an airplane seat.

“Some of the battles I’ve fought for accessibility have been hard,” she says, looking down at the metal band encircling her little finger. “But I wear the iron ring. In Canada, this ring signifies a professional engineer’s responsibility to protect public safety. I take that responsibility very seriously.”