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Frank Risch; Devised Job Program for Epileptics

August 18, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Risch, a psychologist who founded an innovative program in 1948 to prepare those afflicted with epilepsy for jobs in electronics and other industries, has died. He was 89.

Risch died Monday at Barlow Hospital in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure, said his son, Neil Risch.

Educated at USC, Risch became interested in the problems of those with physical challenges when he began working at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Center as chief of epilepsy rehabilitation.

He developed a three-step program: a hospital treatment phase, a community workshop training program and then work at actual jobs. Risch opened the first Epi-Lab training facility in Los Angeles in 1956 and helped develop others in Phoenix, New York's Long Island, Evansville, Ind., and in Germany and other foreign countries.

"The misconceptions about epilepsy have been more insurmountable," he told The Times in 1964, "than the disability itself."

Many employers, he said, hesitated to hire epileptics out of fear they would have seizures and lose control around machinery, causing accidents. Experience proved, however, that the accident rate was no higher among the epileptic workers than among non-handicapped employees.

When he began training epileptics on machines at the Veterans Administration Center, Risch set up a cot in the corner so that anyone who had a seizure could retire there, away from dangerous machinery. The worker was encouraged to go back to work as soon as he recovered.

"I was concerned myself when I started," the psychologist told Time magazine in 1961. "We put padding and plastic shields on all our equipment. Then we saw it wasn't necessary."

Risch also determined through his program that employed epileptics suffered fewer seizures than those with nothing to do.

As Risch's program developed, Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, Hughes Aircraft and other aerospace companies provided contracts to Epi-Lab for work in electronic, mechanical and packaging assembly. Epi-Lab then paid its epileptic workers to complete the assigned work.

He received several awards for his efforts, including the prestigious Bel Greve Award from the National Rehabilitation Assn. in 1967 and a presidential citation from President Jimmy Carter.

Risch served as chief of psychology service at the West Los Angeles Veterans Hospital. He was also secretary-treasurer of the Western Institute on Epilepsy.

In addition to his son, Neil of San Francisco, he is survived by his wife, Sonya of Los Angeles; another son, Harvey of Fairfield, Conn.; and two grandsons, Evan and Eric. He also is survived by a brother, Jack of New Jersey, and a sister, Charlotte Reich of Connecticut.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Epilepsy Foundation of Southern California, 3600 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 920, Los Angeles, CA 90010.

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