New UT Chancellor's Health Fellow to Tackle Disability Issues

  • newswise-fullscreen New UT Chancellor's Health Fellow to Tackle Disability Issues

    Credit: The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

    Lex Frieden, New UT Chancellor's Health Fellow on Disability

Newswise — Kenneth I. Shine, M.D., executive vice chancellor for health affairs for The University of Texas System, has appointed disability rights champion Lex Frieden to take on the challenge of enhancing the lives of the 2.8 million Texans with disabilities. Frieden’s one-year appointment as the Chancellor’s Health Fellow on Disability was effective Dec. 1.

“Only a quarter of the Texans with disabilities are working, compared with two-thirds of the people without disabilities, and a significant percentage live below poverty,” said Frieden, who is one of the architects of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and a professor of biomedical informatics and rehabilitation at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Frieden uses a wheelchair following a 1967 traffic accident in which his spinal cord was severed.

“Lex Frieden’s vast knowledge in the areas of biomedical informatics, physical medicine and rehabilitation – not to mention his extraordinary leadership in guiding national and international organizations that support people with disabilities – make him an outstanding choice as a Chancellor’s Health Fellow,” Shine said. “Frieden’s impressive rèsumé of activities in this field will be most helpful in maximizing improvements in education, research and patient care among our campuses.”

As the Chancellor’s Health Fellow on Disability, Frieden’s goals include exploring the use of technology to facilitate independent living among people with disabilities and expanding employment opportunities. To accomplish this, Frieden will work to identify, organize and coordinate disability research resources within the UT System and seek partnerships with other organizations.

Frieden believes university researchers can do a better job of harnessing advanced technology for the benefit of people with disabilities. “Golfers are choosing clubs based on GPS coordinates and measurements of wind velocity. Hobbyists are guiding model airplanes with head movements. Automobile manufacturers are developing sophisticated accident avoidance systems. Smartphone users are driving virtual race cars by tilting their devices from side to side. At the same time, power wheelchair users are controlling their devices with essentially the same technology that was used to control the devices three decades ago,” he said.

Frieden said research into human assist robotics is particularly promising and could help people with disabilities and seniors to live more independently in their homes and be more productive in the workplace. “Robotics applications are already being used in rehabilitation centers, and in some countries, robotic exoskeletons are being used in farming and in industry,” he said.

“Texas should be at the forefront of research and invention to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, including through technology,” said Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D., chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “Lex Frieden is as knowledgeable as he is passionate, and I am delighted that through his leadership, we can bring together doctors, engineers, computer scientists and other researchers who can collaborate with injured veterans and other persons with disabilities. If we have the tools and technology to send men to the moon, then surely we have the expertise to help Texans live independently.”

The UT System Office of Health Affairs established the Chancellor’s Health Fellows program in 2004 to maximize improvements in education, research and patient care among the system’s campuses.

“I’m pleased a member of our faculty at UTHealth was chosen to lead this system-wide initiative to assist people with disabilities,” said Larry R. Kaiser, M.D., president of UTHealth. “Disability issues will become even more important in the next decade as our population ages and more people acquire functional impairments.”

In addition to his duties at UTHealth, Frieden directs the Independent Living Research Utilization (ILRU) program at TIRR Memorial Hermann, which since 1977 has served as a national center for information, training, research and technical assistance in the area of independent living.

From 1984-88, Frieden served as executive director of the National Council on the Handicapped (now called the National Council on Disability), where he was instrumental in conceiving the ADA. In 2002, Frieden was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the United States Senate as chairperson of the National Council on Disability, the independent federal agency that he directed in the 1980s.

He is the author or co-author of more than 60 articles on independent living, disability rights and rehabilitation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tulsa and a master’s degree in social psychology from the University of Houston. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in law (LL.D.) by the National University of Ireland.

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