"Billy's there just trying to do his job," says York, an affable teddy bear of a man who has been confined to a wheelchair since a 1988 auto accident in his native Ohio.
"The letters I get about the character are great," says York. "One fan wrote, " 'You're just trying to do your job and you shed light on how crazy office politics can be for [workers with disabilities] to interact with co-workers in a normal setting.' "
That perception sits just fine with York, who is making it his mission to change how Hollywood depicts wheelchair users on film and TV. But his larger goal is getting people like himself out of wheelchairs permanently.
To that end, York is serving as the Southern California representative for Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Research Advancement, devoted to ramping up human clinical trials with non-embryonic stem cells to find a cure for spinal-chord injuries.
Enlisting the GovernmentLast summer, York wrote to President Obama about the foundation's work with Michael Levesque, a neuroscientist based at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA. Then in January, York, SCI foundation founder Will Ambler and board member Tom Bordonaro Jr., a former California Assemblyman, were invited to Washington, D.C., to meet with Kareem Dale, President Obama's special assistant for disability policy.
"Basically, Kareem asked, 'What are you guys about?' and we told him," says York, who notes that while the U.S. spends $15 to $20 billion annually on care and supplies for spinal cord injury victims, less than $100 million is devoted to research.
"We need to support efforts for a cure to reduce the other monster number," he says.
In the meantime, York is working on behalf of the SCI Foundation to help raise the $3 million to start a clinical trial program under the direction of Levesque, who recently testified before the U.S. Senate on the promise of stem-cell applications for victims of disease and spinal cord injuries.
"There are one million paralyzed people in the U.S.," York says, noting wryly that it's the only minority group you can join in a split second. "We would be helped, but this research also could help millions more, people with Parkinson's, brain injuries and Alzheimer's."
Win an Office TripYork is also aligning with the entertainment industry to help raise funds. He has set up raffle for the SCI Foundation called Win a Trip to Hollywood, which offers two tickets to the set of The Office, as well as hotel, transportation and round-trip airfare for two. (Check the SCI Web site for details.)
"You'll get to meet the actors, take pictures and spend time in the green room," he says. The cast is really down to earth and easy to chat with. And it's for a great cause."