Facing Death, Student With Special Needs Completes Master's Thesis on Accessible Housing

It is well known that people with special needs can accomplish amazing things despite their so-called disabilities. But in the annals of such heroics, a special place must be reserved for Joshua A. Winheld.

On February 5, 2010, Winheld was awarded a Master of Arts degree in urban studies from Temple University in Philadelphia. For his thesis, he explored factors preventing local real estate developers from building more housing that is accessible to people with physical disabilities. Accessible housing was a subject that had interested Winheld since the age of 10, when he was forced into a wheelchair by Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

As his thesis neared completion in fall 2009, Winheld was working against increasing physical limitations. "When you have Duchenne's, you can never be sure when your condition will worsen and in what ways," Winheld once wrote on his ever-upbeat blog. In Winheld's case, he now required constant nursing care and he was dependent on a ventilator, exhausted by debilitating cardiac medications, and susceptible to shocks from an implanted heart defibrillator. Six years before, in fact, Winheld had abandoned all hopes of earning his master's degree and had withdrawn from school. But in 2008 he summoned the energy to reenroll and resume his studies in the subject he loved.

As Winheld typed his final thesis revisions in early November 2009, he used a computer that he controlled with head movements. It was the same way that several years earlier he had painstakingly keyed all 75,000 words of his autobiography, Worth the Ride: My Journey with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (iUniverse, 2009).

After putting the finishing touches on his thesis, Winheld triumphantly wrote on his blog, "With a deadline looming and on the verge of exhaustion, nothing was going to stop me. If only for a moment, I was able to recapture some of my old magic, pushing myself every time I wanted to take a break. Just after midnight, I submitted my paper."

The thesis was accepted and Winheld was awarded his master's degree along with other graduates at a diploma ceremony in February, but Winheld was not there to receive it. On December 5, 2009, less than a month after he had submitted the paper, Josh Winheld died at age 31. Completing the thesis "was a final herculean achievement in a short life that, by all accounts, was defined by accomplishment, grit, and wit," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its obituary.

Winheld's thesis, titled "Housing Accessibility: The Role and Perspective of Developers in Philadelphia," included some surprising findings. His research revealed that real estate developers may not be as antagonistic as is often thought toward making housing accessible to those with disabilities. But he also learned that the developers he interviewed do not feel a moral obligation to make private spaces accessible and that they have a hard time accepting, or even comprehending, the concept of "universal design," where all structures are made accessible to as many different types of users as possible. Winheld offered some recommendations for shifting developers' views, including seminars for housing professionals and "giving those in the development industry the opportunity to temporarily experience having a disability, as is done in college classes and medical schools."

"My hope is that by [my] talking to these developers," Winheld explained on his blog, "advocates for those with disabilities will be better able to understand the development process and can bring about a better housing situation for people with disabilities in Philadelphia, more than a quarter of whom live in poverty and many of whom are aging."

Winheld's thesis advisor, Prof. Carolyn Adams, delivered the principal address at the ceremony where Winheld received his posthumous degree.

"If Josh were here today," Adams told the new graduates, "he would offer this bit of advice to his classmates: Once you have set your goal and chosen your path, never, ever, give up. Josh never gave up, as long as he lived. Let that piece of advice be a gift to you from your classmate."

Donations in Josh Winheld's name may be made to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, 158 Linwood Plaza, Suite 220, Ft. Lee, N.J., 07024. (www.parentprojectmd.org)

Article Last Modified: 02/16/2010