Retooling people with mobility problems for tech jobs
A yearlong workshop at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia is connecting people with mobility disabilities to a growing field in need of new professionals — computer science.
It's called Project ENABLE and pays participants to train in computer programming and related topics.
Funding comes from the National Science Foundation.
This week students are learning to design their own smartphone apps. In past workshops, they programmed robots.
Christopher O'Rourke, 23, of Gibbsboro, N.J., suffered a spinal cord injury during a 2010 motorcycle accident. He now uses a wheelchair.
Rehab at Magee helped him recover physically, now he's hoping to get back on track professionally.
Like many who suffer a life-changing injury, O'Rourke had to leave school after his accident.
"But now I'm picking back up again and trying to finish what I started," he said.
O'Rourke just completed his first semester at Camden County College and is working toward an associate's degree in criminal justice.
"Project ENABLE encouraged me to go back to school," he said. "Since I've been hurt I haven't had any encouragement to go back to school and now I'm back at it," he said.
Workshop organizers say unemployement rates are high among people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities that require a mobility aid, such as a scooter, wheelchair or cane.
The national unemployment rate for people with any disability is 13.6 percent — almost double the percentage for people without a disability, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kim Roselli, program coordinator for Project ENABLE, led this week's workshop. She said computer science jobs often have shorter hours or can be done from home. That flexibility can make those positions a good fit for people with a disability.
"They're certainly able to be creative, able to use their minds and be able to create things and live an independent life," Roselli said. "And that's, I think, one of the main goals is that we want everyone to live independent lives and be able to be self-sufficient."
During the workshops, Frankie LaMacchia demonstrated a walking aid called Ekso. It's a bionic suit that some describe as a "wearable robot." It can help people who lack the strength to walk on their own to take steps.
"Having people who have disabilities in the field of the computer science can really benefit others that are disabled that are trying to find ways to become more independent," Marie Protesto, Magee's Peer Mentor Coordinator, said. "It's a win-win in that area as well."
Project ENABLE is open to past Magee patients and anyone in the community with a mobility disability.
Vilma Mazziol, an adolescent and young adult education and vocation counselor at Magee, works to help patients pursue a new career or schooling after injury.
"We've been really impressed with the turnout," she said. "We're just thrilled that these individuals are looking at going back to school and pursuing a career rather than sit at home and not do anything."
New Project ENABLE sessions start in 2014.