The NPR Bootcamp newsroom after dark.

The NPR Bootcamp newsroom after dark.

By Ryan Smith

It’s 9:15 on Thursday night.

I’m the only reporter left in the news studio, and I still have several untouched assignments.

They are due tomorrow, and I am obviously behind.

The page-long list of tasks yet to be completed would normally leave me wrought with anxiety, but tonight, in this quiet, empty newsroom, I’ve made my peace with it.

It’s not my fault. It’s not really anyone’s fault. Sometimes life just gets in the way.

No one understands that better than Jesse Leaman, an astrophysicist who turned his attention to researching assistive technologies for the severely disabled.

Jesse Leaman and I talk in the club house at the apartment complex where he lives.

Jesse Leaman and I talk in the club house at the apartment complex where he lives.

A quadriplegic himself, Leaman has spent the last 19 years of his life at the mercy of the people and places around him.

Whether it be getting out of bed in the morning, commuting to work, or eating a meal, the world was not built for people like Leaman.

Quite the opposite.

In the two days I spent with him this week, I watched him wait patiently through long bus rides, and for people to open doors for him. Nothing happens quickly for the man whose nickname in high school was “lightning.”

It’s not likely, either, that the world will quickly change to better accommodate his needs. Nor, does he expect it to.

So, Leaman is determined to design a wheelchair that gives quads back their independence.

A project 19 years in the making, he hopes to builda pair of robotic arms upon the smart wheelchair he already uses that would enable him to feed himself, open doors and even do the “robot dance.”

It’s just the next innovation in a line of impressive technologies — including a backup camera, infrared tracking software and 3D mapping technology — Leaman helped prototype and incorporate into a mobile office and navigation system that sits atop his motorized wheelchair.

It has made his life much more productive. But, he stills opportunities to increase his contribution.

Like everything in his daily life, there are obstacles to his research — in particular, funding.

Leaman keeps on trying though. Always patiently.

During one long bus ride this week, the PhD in astrophysics told me that time goes faster when you’re moving. It seems only fitting, then, that while his body moves slowly, his mind is quick. He sees how to solve accessibility before the rest of us and he isn’t going to wait for the rest of us to catch up.

So, here it is the night before my story is due and I am behind in my work. But, it’s not my fault and it’s not Leaman’s fault. His world moves at a different pace than the rest of us.

I just have to catch up.


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