Blindness doesn't hold back Army researcher
September 20, 2010
- Blind Army researcher doesn't let disablity hold him back from work or sports
Despite advancements in laws, policies and public perception, those with physical, mental and sensory impairments are sometimes excluded from education opportunities or employment.
However John Morgan, a mathematician with the Army Research Laboratory at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, is an example of a determined self-sufficient employee and an extreme
Identifying himself as 100% blind from an accident when he was 18 years old, Morgan secured an employment internship at The University of California, Irvine, to research foreign language speech recognition. In 1996, he was hired by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, as a staff mathematician in the foreign language department through a Presidential program to expose talented people with disabilities to federal opportunities. In 2008, Morgan brought his statistical approach to ARL.
Using the Jobs Access with Speech software, a screen-reading application, Morgan can hear the content of text for many computer programs including E-mail and the Internet. Instead of navigating with a mouse, the JAWS software uses key strokes to move through programs, and the computer processes sounds from the text automatically. Morgan is also assisted with mobility through his working dog "Wade," a black Labrador retriever from the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization that teams dogs with blind or visually-impaired people free of charge.
In addition to his work successes, Morgan is also recognized as a champion athlete. Growing up near the beaches of southern California, Morgan was a competitive swimmer as a youth and worked as a junior lifeguard. After a 3-year hiatus from the sport, he contacted the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes which is known for enhancing the lives of blind and visually impaired people by providing opportunities for participation in sports and physical activity.
"USABA helped me not only get back into swimming but also introduced me to other sports," said Morgan. Through USABA, he participated in the 1984 Paralympics as a visually impaired athlete and again in 1992 as a totally blind athlete. In 1984, he became an All-American open water swimmer and still holds the Paralympics record for the 400 freestyle with a time of 4:20. In 2008, he participated in Maryland's Swim for Life Chesapeake Bay 5-mile open water competition and took second place with a time of 1:55. To participate in these open water swims, he is guided through the course by a flotation device attached to a two-person kayak.
Nadine Lilavois, ALC Fitness Center manager, has known Morgan since he was training for the Marine Corps Marathon in 2009 and often grills him about training too hard or not bringing water to his workouts. "John is an almost daily customer here at the Center and is unique because of his distinctive athletic ability," she said. "He likes to be challenged."
Despite a training injury last year, Morgan completed the 2009 marathon with the support of his trainer and ARL colleague Leng Sim. He plans to run alongside Sim and another ARL coworker Tim Gregory at the upcoming Marine Corps Marathon in October.
Morgan is also an avid cyclist and has been using the ALC Summer Bike Club, where participants ride around the installation three times a week and keep track of their miles, as part of his training regimen for the 100-mile Sea Gull Century ride Oct. 9 along Maryland's Eastern Shore. For his training and for the upcoming race he rides a tandem bike with colleague Steve LaRocca, an ARL colleague who also worked with Morgan at West Point.
"It's all about teamwork," said Morgan in describing the tandem bike arrangement. "As the guy in the back, you have no control over braking or turning; you just have to trust the person in front."
Despite his workplace and athletic achievements, Morgan perceives that the full integration of disabled people is more the exception than the rule. "There is still room for improvement," he said. "For example, during mandatory computer training sessions it's sometimes hard for me to access because the program doesn't use a text-to-talk feature."
That said, Morgan continues to be an essential part of current national security research and a cardio-pumping inspiration for sports junkies. He's also someone who might surprise those who might just see his disability but who don't know him. If they did get to know him, they'd find out about another achievement ... he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2008.