September 29, 2015

Designer and Immigrant Activist Are Among MacArthur 'Genius' Winners

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Alex Truesdell, a former teacher at a school for the blind, now makes special tools and furniture for children with disabilities.

Alex Truesdell was a teacher at a school for the blind 34 years ago when her aunt suffered a spinal-cord injury and lost the use of her hands. The tragic event sparked in Ms. Truesdell an interest in creating smart products to help people with disabilities, especially children, live more normal and active lives.

She now runs a small shop in New York that is overwhelmed with requests for specialty items from kids and their parents across the country.

Earlier this month, Ms. Truesdell found out she’ll be getting some help in the form of one of 24 "genius" grants awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ms. Truesdell and the other class of 2015 MacArthur Fellows will each receive a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years with no strings attached, meaning the awardees can use the grant money for any purpose.

Wide-Ranging Causes

Other nonprofit leaders who are among the winners include:

  • Patrick Awuah, a former Microsoft engineer who founded Ashesi University in Ghana, his homeland, in 2002. The university is grounded in liberal arts, critical thinking, and problem solving and is focused on cultivating a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders in Africa.
  • Gary Cohen, an environmental health advocate who co-founded Health Care Without Harm in 1996, a nonprofit that works with hospitals and other health-care facilities to reduce pollutants caused by medical technologies and practices.
  • Juan Salgado, who leads the Instituto del Progreso Latino, which helps low-income Latino immigrants and their families in Chicago find pathways to upper mobility. The institute offers adult and youth education programs, work-force development and training, citizenship preparation, and other services.

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Surprising Call

Ms. Truesdell was expecting a visit from a reporter (a ruse created to ensure the very busy Ms. Truesdell would be at her desk when foundation leaders called) on the afternoon of September 8. When the phone rang, she was disappointed, assuming the reporter was calling to cancel. Disappointment quickly turned to astonishment when the voice over the line delivered the news

"I could not have been more blown away" said Ms. Truesdell. "If there’s such a thing as a glorious trauma, this is it in that it’s so shocking."

Ms. Truesdell began thinking about adaptive design in 1981 after her aunt, Lynn Valley, lost the use of her hands after a spinal-cord injury during a routine examination at a hospital.

With the help of Ms. Valley’s husband, Frank, Ms. Truesdell, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind, learned to build custom solutions for her aunt and soon set up a small workshop in her basement to create adaptations for the children she taught. She eventually established the Assistive Device Center at the Perkins school and later the Adaptive Design Association in 2001.

Today, Ms. Truesdell and her staff of four full-time and eight part-time employees at Adaptive Design directly serve about 100 children a year but help hundreds more of all ages through internships and hands-on classes her organization holds for occupational therapists, product designers, and the public. The center also helps adults and has what she calls a "never say no" policy to anyone requesting help.

"The needs out there are so massive that we need everyone to take what they learn and share it," she said. "We hope we’re serving many more than the one’s we serve directly."

To date, the organization has created thousands of adaptations for children in New York and has helped people launching similar centers in Boston, Portland, and San Diego as well as Canada, Europe and Latin America.

It also has an internship program for people in work-force training and one for women who have been incarcerated.

But with a $720,000 budget for this fiscal year (the highest in the organization’s history), there are only so many people Ms. Truesdell’s group can help. She says she hopes her MacArthur award will help her group raise significantly more money so she can expand the organization’s work and reach.

"People from around the world ask us every week how they can get tools, if we can come to them, how they can start a class," she said. "But there’s just not been enough money to say yes to everyone."

‘Little Dreams’

Meanwhile, Mr. Salgado, of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, says he is trying to figure how to use parts of his award to help his organization, which has an annual budget of about $19-million split among three entities that serve 11,000 to 14,000 people annually.

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

"There’s these little dreams I’ve always had that just haven’t happened because there hasn’t been enough money or time," said Mr. Salgado.

One of those dreams is a local event he’d like to start in his predominantly Mexican neighborhood, where local children can learn a variety of languages and learn more about their culture and the cultures of other countries.

But more important, he said, he plans to use some of the attention the award will attract to be a more visible spokesman to address the problems that U.S. cities face in trying to help immigrants integrate and find success in society.

Said Mr. Salgado: "For me, it’s thinking about Chicago, but thinking about it as a laboratory for innovation and game-changing improvements in the things we’ve been struggling with throughout the country."

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.