Sunday, September 6, 2009

Innovation Institute, Autumn Update

"It is above all by imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope."
~ Ursula Le Guinn

The name of the school is Innovation Institute, a state-of-the-art vocational school for the wheelchair bound. The mission is to get products into the hands of the physically challenged that they couldn’t get anywhere else or they couldn’t afford. And, to give them new skills so they can earn some extra money for the first time in their lives… to achieve a greater measure of freedom and dignity.

It is not arts and crafts for the sake of filling time, but a serious industrial arts school designed to provide hands on training in everything from from locksmithing and auto mechanics to welding and metalwork.

The school is an enormously ambitious project, the result of Harrold Andresen’s inner passion to do something significant for a neglected portion of our community: the wheelchair bound. Most of us are too busy to give much thought to the complicated challenges people in wheelchairs wrestle with on a daily basis. Andresen, who converted two thirds of his 20-stall Duncanville auto repair business (Mechanical Excellence) into a space for the school, is remarkably attuned to the needs of his students. According to Andresen, “You can buy a grabber that has two claws, but you can’t buy a grabber that has two cups that you could fill with bird seed so you could fill your bird feeder. That’s what they want to do.” In other words, they want to overcome conventional limitations.

Andresen’s insights have been culled from years of interaction, research and serious reflection. He lives at their level. In conjunction with his wheelchair bound friends and students, they creatively engineered handicapped restrooms that do more than meet the letter of the law. They are actually useful and workable. But it took innovation.

It boils down to the practical chores of daily living that most of us take for granted. “The biggest interest of the 30 or so people that have been involved so far in the last four years here is with those kinds of products, not just to make new ones that don’t exist but to fix the old ones that don’t work quite right for them. Like the guy with the squeezer, we made a longer handle because his hands are too weak, so he doesn’t have to use two hands to run his squeezer. And it’s perfect now, at very little cost. And then the offshoot of that is, okay we served this guy and it was very simple and didn’t cost very much… we just modified a nine dollar Wal-Mart grabber. But to take that idea and say there are probably other people out there who want a cheap grabber that had longer handles and was much easier to operate. Take this concept and say, ‘Okay, how can we get that to those people and can we make it ourselves? Who do we want to make it?’ We want to employ people in wheelchairs. So we talked to five people and said, ‘Well, can you guys fix rivets and shrink wrap?’

“So we get the logistics down, and then we say we gotta market this and build this. Do we need a million dollars in capital to start this business, the cost of a typical business start up? What’s so totally unique about this is that the answer is no. These people are saying two hundred dollars a month would change their lives. ‘If I had four hundred dollars a month I’d lose my social security benefits! I can’t make more than so much’… and they have a pretty small window.”

“Then there’s this disconnect where they say, ‘Well, I’ll go to Jr. college and I’ll study word processing and go try and find a job.’ And if they could, which is unlikely, but let’s say they can (find a position), the employer says, ‘Well can you work 40, 30, 20 hours?’ and they say no. ‘Well, what can you work?’

“The average person in a wheel chair, actually 90 percent on disability could work that job on the days they felt good enough to work that job. What about ten hours a week? So here I am with my diploma, will you hire me for ten hours a week? And the employer says there’s no positions open for 10 hours a week. Who do you think you are, everyone here would like to work ten hours a week and have random schedule, maybe Tuesday and maybe Thursday. So this guy can’t get a job; the system won’t accommodate him.”

Andresen, a graduate of Minnesota’s Dunwiddy Institute, is one of the most creative people I know when it comes to mechanical engineering and re-engineering. His inventions to solve problems under the hood or around the home are too numerous to enumerate here. Despite the obstacles in getting ideas to market, he is sustained by an irrepressible optimism that makes one believe all things are still possible.

Apart from his family this is no doubt Harrold’s biggest life project to date. He has five years invested in laying the groundwork. Funding for the school is dependent on the generosity of others. Harrold’s done the heavy lifting, championing the vision and bring it to a place where others can now see and understand that which was at one time only a wispy germ of a seed.

This brief introduction is inadequate for capturing the scope of the project. If interested in learning more, or in making a contribution to this important work, visit their website, which like the school is a work in progress.

No comments: