Aaron Donaghey, an MIT Disabilities Services Office employee and a member of the Screen Actor's Guild, will play host to one of his heroes on Sunday.
Christopher Reeve, best known for his portrayal of Superman, will be on campus to speak at the MIT/Harvard Conference on Neuroscience, and Donaghey will be his navigator, mapping a wheelchair-accessible route for the visit. Reeve is paralyzed from the neck down due to a 1995 equestrian accident.
"MIT is sometimes hard to get around," said Donaghey, who also uses a wheelchair for mobility because of a condition similar to Reeve's. "It's an old school and with all the construction going on, it makes it that much harder."
Donaghey, 31, started acting in television commercials for CVS and AT&T about six years ago, and soon he will make an appearance in a movie titled "The Human Stain," starring Anthony Hopkins. As he guides Reeve around campus, his ears will be open for career advice.
"Maybe I'll ask him if he knows of any acting work," he said with a smile.
The route Donaghey has planned for Reeve's visit demonstrates the attention to detail he learned since his car accident 14 years ago.
"MIT's main address is 77 Massachusetts Ave.--it's on every letterhead and it's where people direct visitors," he said. "But think of someone with a disability getting there and looking up at that huge flight of stairs."
A wheelchair-accessible entrance is under construction--an important symbolic step, in Donaghey's view--but for the time being, other arrangements are necessary.
Reeve will enter through the basement of Building 7 and use the elevator to get to the the Emma Rogers Room on the third floor of Building 10. When it's time for his speech, the nearby Lobby 10 elevators would seem the obvious choice to carry him down a level to Room 10-250, but they are much too small to accommodate a wheelchair like Reeve's, so it's back to the Building 7 elevators, down a level and then back to Building 10.
Despite the convoluted route, Donaghey is generally pleased with MIT's accessibility efforts. Automatic door buttons have been installed around campus, new ramps are planned for Walker Memorial and the Sloan School, and the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center includes accessible exercise equipment and an accessible pool.
Donaghey admires and appreciates Reeve's activities on- and off-screen. Since childhood, "Superman I" has held a special place in his heart, but his favorite is the 1997 HBO film "In the Gloaming," which Reeve directed after his accident. The film features Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg.
For Donaghey, Reeve's activism is his highest achievement.
"He's a great spokesperson for the spinal-cord-injured community." Donaghey said. "He's active, intelligent and willing to lobby."
Not only willing, but able. Since the late 1990s, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has raised and distributed more than $30 million in research grants to study everything from cell regeneration and gene therapy to rehabilitation techniques.
Donaghey also credits Reeve for his contagious optimism. At age 50, Reeve believes that at the current rate of scientific progress, he will walk again. In the past five years, more scientists and others with spinal cord damage are inclined to agree.
"I have no doubt that at some point in my life I'll be out of the chair; it's just a matter of when," said Donaghey.
The MIT/Harvard Conference on Neuroscience will be held Saturday and Sunday in Room 10-250. Admission is free for undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. For information, see http://www.hippocraticsociety.org/main.php.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.