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We have the ability to do more

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

By Dan Majors, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1821, a French army captain visited a school for blind children in Paris. (You know how kids love to take a break from lessons, especially if it means hearing stories from real, honest-to-god fighting heroes.)

Rory Cooper wheels himself through a corridor near his wheelchair laboratory at the Veterans Administration Hospital yesterday. (Keith Srakocic, Associated Press)

The soldier, Charles Barbier de la Serre, brought along the tale of how Napoleon had wanted some way for his men at the front to be able to communicate coded messages with each other silently and in the dark.

Barbier came up with a system he called "night writing," using patterns of raised dots on paper.

The system, however, proved to be too complex for the soldiers, and the army rejected it.

Fortunately, that was not the system's Waterloo.

Sitting in the class, listening to Barbier, was a 12-year-old boy who had been blinded in an accident at the age of 3.

His name was Louis Braille. And he wanted to read and write.

By the age of 15, Braille developed the simpler system of raised dots that blind people all over the world still use to read printed texts.

Unfortunately, Braille's system was not in common use when he died of tuberculosis at age 43. It was years before it really caught on.

Nowadays, we're a little bit better at recognizing people's achievements and contributions.

That's why Rory A. Cooper is heading for Washington, D.C.

Cooper is an engineer and director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's National Center for Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technology. He also is chairman of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh.

And he uses a wheelchair. Ever since he was struck by a truck while riding his bicycle some 22 years ago.

Cooper has never let his disability keep him from doing the things that he loves to do. He participates in athletics. He teaches. And he works to provide better educational opportunities for young people with disabilities.

"The technical barriers to science education for high school students with disabilities need to be overcome," Cooper told education reporter Carmen J. Lee in an interview a couple of years ago. "We must begin to effectively address the attitudinal barriers that discourage these students from pursuing a degree in bioengineering."

Many people don't think disabled individuals have the physical or communication abilities to work in science and engineering fields, he explained.

Those people are wrong.

Cooper also has devoted much of his career to developing and building better wheelchairs. It is that work which has earned him the Department of Veterans Affairs' annual Olin E. Teague Award for outstanding work with disabled veterans. He will receive the honor in a ceremony tomorrow in D.C.

"Dr. Cooper's research has contributed to veterans living longer with less pain from secondary disabilities," said Michael E. Moreland, director of the Pittsburgh VA system. "He has streamlined wheelchairs and, through his advocacy efforts, has improved access to wheelchairs."

Once you provide access, there's no limit to where people can go. Or what they can do.

Never has a toll road taken such a toll on people's patience

Improved access is at the heart of the debate over the planned Mon-Fayette Expressway. Some people think it will open up the Mon Valley. But others agree with the recent assessment by the Riverlife Task Force, which says that the proposed toll road would create barriers and hinder development.

You get a jury of your peers -- who bothered to get involved

The scales of justice are showing a racial imbalance among juries in Allegheny County. So there is a move afoot to get more blacks to serve. The Pittsburgh Branch of the NAACP and more than 130 local clergy are working on the problem.

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