Phillip D. Rumrill Jr. (submitted photo)
Phillip D. Rumrill Jr. (submitted photo)

WESTMINSTER -- During the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in 1984, Phillip D. Rumrill Jr. was just an ordinary teenager looking forward to finishing his secondary education with his friends.

But that all changed when the Bellows Falls Union High School student developed Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, a degeneration of the optic nerve that results in poor central vision.

"I went from having normal vision and playing on the baseball team to not being able to read the headlines in the newspaper," he told the Reformer, adding that he now has 20-600 vision, whereas that of the average person is 20-20. "The school was wonderfully accommodating. I didn't want to go to a school for the blind. I wanted to stay with my friends."

The Westminster native turned this adversity into motivation to help others with similar hardships. After earning a doctorate in rehabilitation, he eventually became the director of Kent State University's Center for Disability Studies, which was recently awarded a $2.3 million grant from the United States Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The money will be used for a five-year project intended to ease the transition into college and, later, the workforce for people with traumatic brain injuries.

Entitled "Project Career: Providing Cognitive Support Technologies to Facilitate the Transition from Postsecondary Education to Employment Among Americans with Traumatic Brain Injuries," the project started on Tuesday, Oct. 1, as a collaborative venture between Kent State, Boston University and West Virginia University. Rumrill said the project will be utilized by students at those three colleges, as well as people not affiliated with the institutions but who live in their general areas.

He said the program will be customized toward each of its roughly 150 participants, who will receive an iPad at little or no cost to learn how to overcome their challenges. Each iPad will feature an arrangement of apps tailored to its student's individual needs. Rumrill used intermediate term memory issues as an example and said students with problems in this area have difficulty recalling information from two weeks prior. He said a student will be able to make reminders and take notes for classes and exams.

"Instead of tying a string around your finger, now you've just got an iPad," Rumrill, also a professor of rehabilitation counseling, said on Tuesday from his office in Ohio.

He said the project's participants will also receive intensive career counseling and preparation from assigned counselors and will be hooked up with part-time and summertime employment in their chosen fields. The participants' performance will be tracked and Rumrill hopes this project will help boost graduation rates among students with traumatic brain injuries.

Despite his disability, Rumrill graduated from BFUHS in 1985 and attended Keene State College, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in 1989 and 1991, respectively. He studied psychology and soon started to gravitate toward working with people with disabilities, wanting to help train the people who assist those with challenges. He completed in his doctorate in rehabilitation at the University of Arkansas in 1993 and over the past 20 years has authored or co-authored roughly 170 journal articles, 30 book chapters, monographs and training manuals and 11 books, according to his office.

"I now train people who work with people just like I was 30 years ago," he said, adding that it was his responsibility "as someone who got a lot of terrific breaks along the way."

Rumrill said his whole family still lives in the area, including his parents, who now reside in Charlestown, N.H. He now lives in Munroe Falls, Ohio, with his wife and their six children and said he comes home about twice a year, calling it "a great place to start."

He told the Reformer he has been the director of the Center for Disability Studies, which he called "a clearinghouse for grant-funded projects for disability issues of all kinds," since 1998. He said the center has secured about $16 million in funds for 25 or 26 grant-funded projects in that time and the federal government regularly posts announcements of particular ventures it is interested in funding. Rumrill said the center was awarded the grant money for this newest project after surviving a review panel with 40 or 50 other applicants.

He said the shutdown of the federal government did not hamper the center getting the money it was awarded, as one year's worth of funding had already been granted. Rumrill said he is relieved because it will be very beneficial to both graduate students pursuing advanced degrees as well as the undergraduate students with traumatic brain injuries. He said people with disabilities are "the poorest, the least-educated and the most-often-excluded minority group in our society."

"These are the types of projects that really make a difference in people's lives," he said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.