Making public parks more accessible and understanding how the human body compensates after the loss of an eye are what Jason Angel and Stefania Moro hope to accomplish with their research. The two graduate students are the latest recipients of a unique scholarship—the TD Grant in Medical Excellence: A Scholarship in Rehabilitation Related Research for People with Disabilities—aimed at helping burgeoning scientists living with a disability to pursue and advance a career in rehab research. The scholarship is administered by Toronto Rehab and is open to students from several Ontario universities: McMaster, Ryerson, UofT, Waterloo, York and Laurier.

Picture of a Group of PeopleAmong the first of its kind in Canada, the scholarship will provide $20,000 each to Jason and Stefania, who join a list of 12 recipients since the scholarship was established in 2006. TD Bank Financial Group has pledged $550,000 to support the program since then, which was created by Toronto Rehab and its foundation to engage people with disabilities in a meaningful way in rehabilitation research.

"This scholarship enhances the relevance and quality of rehabilitation research and breaks down the barriers that students with disabilities often face when pursuing higher education," says Dr. Geoff Fernie, Institute Director of Research, Toronto Rehab, UHN, who developed the idea for the scholarship. "This is important because out of the four million people living with a disability in Canada, only about 8% complete a bachelor's degree, and even fewer complete a graduate degree."

Growing up in rural Maine, Jason has always loved travel and the outdoors. This passion continued after a car crash in 1990 which left him with a spinal cord injury.

"My spirit of adventure didn't end when I started using a wheelchair," says Jason. "I realized how environmental barriers can prevent people with disabilities from participating in travel, employment, and everyday life. With the right knowledge and a bit of effort, many of these barriers can be eliminated or minimized."

Last year, Jason moved for a master's in Environmental Studies Tourism Policy and Planning at the University of Waterloo. Recognizing the importance of accessibility for people with disabilities and its enormous potential economic impact on the tourism industry, he is currently auditing accessibility at five parks in southern Ontario and plans to make recommendations to improve accessibility particularly for people with limited mobility or who use wheelchairs.  

For Stefania, the scholarship will advance her already groundbreaking work. She is the first researcher to study auditory and visual processing in a rare group of patients—those who have had one eye surgically removed at a young age due to cancer.

She believes that people with a sensory deficit can be trained to adapt, which in turn will result in rich perceptual experiences and less stress on their remaining senses. Her research explores crossmodal plasticity—or how people with one eye adapt—and whether other senses are enhanced and thus compensate for the loss.

"People with one eye have enhanced senses as a form of compensation," says Stefania, who suffered a traumatic injury to her left eye as a child. "This gives researchers and medical practitioners useful information to teach people how to improve their lives. My life experiences and my knowledge of the importance of maintaining my seeing eye and complementary senses have driven me to advocate for vision research and the resulting clinical applications which will improve patients' lives."

Stefania plans to explore her findings further through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging at York and intends to pursue a PhD in Vision Science research. The scholarship will help her advance this area of research.

The awards were presented at the 7th annual Toronto Rehab Research Day on November 17, 2011.

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