Some of the major aerospace and defense companies are about to get an offer they cannot refuse. Battered almost daily by disclosures of overpriced parts, improper gratuities, inflated profits and minimal taxes, they are being given a chance for redemption.
This week, the chief executives of some 55 of the defense-aerospace companies will get letters from the Seattle-based Concepts for Independent Living. The letters will ask for contributions of money and volunteer help to harness the high technology of the military and space programs to improve the lives of severely handicapped and disabled people in this country.
The goal is to raise an initial fund of $3 million to $5 million to create a 50-state network of offices, each served by a toll-free "800" phone number, where handicapped people can seek help on their individual problems.
Around each of these "tech-net" offices, the plan is to build a "tech-team," volunteers of defense-aerospace engineers who will work one- on-one with the disabled to devise equipment that will improve their lives.
I heard about the project last week at a breakfast with Boeing Co. treasurer Jack B. Pierce, the chairman of Concepts for Independent Living, and his best friend in government, Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret M. Heckler. The cause is a shared passion for them, and after hearing them, I'm convinced they are going to get what Pierce calls "the space program for the disabled" off the ground.
They took some heat -- in the form of bad publicity -- when they went to the Paris Air Show last month to show off a $20,000 government display of space-based technology already being used for the handicapped. But Heckler insists that the display, of the Jarvik artificial heart, robotic arms, ultra-lightweight wheelchairs and programmable pacemakers and implantable medicine dispensers, was one of the hits of the show.
She has caught some of the emotion Pierce displays on this subject -- emotion rooted in the fact that his own son is severely disabled from an auto accident. And like the tough, realistic Massachusetts politician she is, Heckler is perfectly willing to show her sales targets how it is in their self-interest to go along.
In letters and video cassettes, in private meetings and speeches, she has asked the aerospace-defense executives to join in this part of President Reagan's private-sector initiative for the disabled. So far, she says, she has gotten "no big feedback."
One of her purposes in our breakfast interview was to drop the unsubtle hint that with all the lumps the space and weapons industry has been taking in Congress and the press, "this is a chance for them to enhance their self-worth and image." She is handing them a white hat and daring them to throw it away.
Whatever it offers the industry, this program's potential for the disabled is clear. The "tech-net" concept has been tested in South Carolina since 1983, with a federal grant, and Pierce's group is launching a more ambitious version of it -- partially staffed by handicapped people -- in Seattle this year.
But as Heckler said, "We haven't even scratched the surface" of what might be done. The notion that technologies that are developed to allow humans to survive in the alien environment of space, or in the hostile environment of warfare, can be used to help disabled people cope with the challenges of their daily environment has both practical sense and emotional appeal.
"There is nothing more challenging than putting an engineer up against a quadriplegic or a brain-injured person," Pierce said, "and saying, 'See what you can devise that will help him cope.' There's a kind of magic in it."
An example of what Pierce is talking about can be found at the Baltimore-based Volunteers for Medical Engineering, most of whose 200 members are employees of Westinghouse. John Staehlin, the head of the group, said its members have developed, with Johns Hopkins Medical School, an electronically driven device that gives people with severely damaged hands much greater control and flexibility of their fingers. Staehlin echoes Pierce's judgment that "the company is thrilled with the expansion of skills, and it's been great for morale."
The goal is to expand the "tech-net" centers to Texas, Kansas and Pennsylvania next year, and across the country to all states by 1988. Through the "800" phone lines, disabled and handicapped people will be able to find out what kind of equipment and assistance is available, and will be put in touch with a "tech- team" volunteer.
That engineer or technician will try what Pierce calls "tin-bending" -- adapting existing technology -- to meet the individual needs. The volunteer will take the unsolved problems back to the shop for further work.
"I know from my own experience," Pierce said, "that there is tremendous satisfaction in this." Add to that what Heckler calls "a chance for salvation" for a beleaguered industry, and you can see why it's an offer that can't be refused.