As Steve Saling sat in his wheelchair on the stage at Everett High School (EHS) earlier this month, his eyes darted back and forth to the rims of his glasses, where a special computer program registered the words he wanted to choose and then the computer read the sentence aloud to those gathered to hear him speak.
“I never imagined I would be in a nursing home when I was only in my 40s, but no one ever thinks disability will strike them,” said Saling to the students in the Allied Health Academy. “Because of the amazing ice bucket challenge last summer, everyone knows about ALS, which is what I have.”
Saling is the designer and best advocate for the Leonard Florence Center for Living (LFCFL) on Chelsea’s Admiral’s Hill, and he and several of the students under teacher Sue Lomas have become well acquainted with Saling. They’ve also become educated on the new, state-of-the-art home that he helped to design as ALS began to get a stronger and stronger grip on his life and eventually bound him to a wheelchair.
Several of the students have participated in the annual ‘Walk for Living’ and Lomas will be honored at the walk this year for spearheading a new relationship between EHS and the LFCFL. In large part, the relationship has been mutually beneficial as the students in the Allied Health have been amazed at what Saling has accomplished.
“To take an individual who has had so much taken away from them and give them back as much independence as technology will allow is a very, very powerful achievement,” Saling said. “We are making a huge difference in these lives.”
Saling grew up near Atlanta and attended Auburn University, where he gained a degree in landscape architecture. After a foray in 2005 to Italy to learn how to make wine, Saling said he returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston, where he had an office overlooking Boston Common and was a top designer in town.
“Life was good,” he said. “At the same time I moved to Boston, though, I began to experience an odd weakness in my left hand. It was a couple times a week the pencil would drop out of my hand as I wrote. After many tests, on Friday, Oct. 13, 2006 – one month after my 38th birthday and my son had been born – I was diagnosed with ALS. It has been very difficult; I can’t say it hasn’t. Not being able to move or speak is absolutely terrible, but other things have gotten better. My capacity to experience enjoyment has actually increased. It’s a matter of redefining normal.”
Part of coping with the disease, however, was how Saling teamed up with Barry Berman of the LFCFL to design a new, cutting-edge care center for those with ALS and MS – a living community now known as the Green House, a first of its kind in the area.
Before the disease completely disabled him, Saling researched ALS and found that the quality of life after five years was terrible. Many were confined to hospitals, looking at the ceiling. Many chose to die, he said, as soon as they could no longer live on their own.
Saling wasn’t interested in that.
“I chose to prove them all wrong,” he said.
Using his knack for design, he began to create a home that was fully controlled by computer command.
The television is turned on and off via computer software, as are the blinds.
The elevator is controlled in the same way – as is the entire living area.
“I can smell, hear, feel, taste and experience everything the same way,” he said. “My brain isn’t affected and I am as smart as I ever was, and probably smarter. I am the same person. My body’s just stopped working. Technology has evened the playing field. There is no physical disability on the Internet. If we met on the Internet, you would never know I was in a wheelchair and cannot speak…I can control everything where I live through computer commands. It is the perfect solution. It is very easy and anyone can teach it to themselves. The 21st Century has filled a void for the disabled. Until medical science proves otherwise, technology is the cure…ALS was not the end of my life, just a change in its direction.”
Saling called on all the students
to participate in the ALS Walk for Living on Sept. 27 at Admiral’s Hill in Chelsea to help raise funds to be able to construct more Green Houses like the one he lives in.
“Everett High School and Chelsea High School have been incredible supporters for us,” Saling said. “I think Chelsea High had a bigger turnout last year, but I think Everett can beat them this year.”
“Yes!” responded the enthusiastic students in the audience.