RESNA was started in August 1979 at a meeting of the Inter-Agency Conference on Rehabilitation Engineering when participants Douglas Hobson, Colin McLaurin, James Reswick, Anthony Staros, and Joseph Traub offered a resolution to form the "Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America." Over 200 people at the meeting requested membership in the new organization. Jim Reswick was elected as first president and Jan Little as secretary. "Seed money" of $1,000 was provided through a gift from Robert Graebe of Roho R&D Inc., and was used to purchase stationary, file incorporation papers, and mail membership materials. The first RESNA "office" was a combination of Jim Reswick's office at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center and Jan Little's spare bedroom! In 1980 RESNA became incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation (501(c)(3) under the laws of the State of Illinois. The first official membership and board meetings were held in Toronto in June of 1980 in conjunction with an international conference on rehabilitation engineering being held there. RESNA's first independent conference was held in August 1981 in Washington DC with support of a $36,000 grant from the Veteran's Administration.
RESNA was informally structured around the network of the NIHR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERC's) when it was first organized and drew substantially from these centers for its officers and board members. While this focus was relatively short-lived, it probably explains the fairly common, but erroneous, perception of RESNA as an "academic" organization. RESNA was conceived as an interdisciplinary society to promote the transfer of science, engineering and technology to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. "RESNA" was originally an acronym for "Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America."
As the membership of RESNA became more diversified with a relative decrease in the proportion of engineers and a corresponding increase of other disciplines it was determined that a name that more generally reflected that composition of the society and its purpose was needed. The name chosen was the "Association for the Advancement of Rehabilitation Technology". It was judged necessary to retain the RESNA logo during a transition period due to its widespread recognition. This led to considerable confusion. It was subsequently decided to adopt "RESNA" as the official name with the optional use of a descriptive phrase "An interdisciplinary association for the advancement of rehabilitation and assistive technologies". In June of 1995 the name was changed once again, this time to the "Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America -- RESNA."
Also in 1981, an association management firm was enlisted to administer RESNA and Pat Horner was hired as the first executive director. Over the next several years, RESNA began a slow but definite transition towards maturity as a professional society. Several significant changes and developments were initiated in 1985. Contractual arrangements were made for professional management services with Smith, Bucklin and Associates, Inc, (SBA) a professional management company; the meeting format was standardized to provide continuity and several new concepts were introduced, including Special Interest Groups (SIG's). Professional Specialty Groups (PSG's) were initiated in 1988. The profitability of the Annual Conference and other RESNA activities has increased continuously since 1985. The first Regional RESNA conference was held in 1985, and this concept has developed into a series of regional conferences held annually throughout the USA. In 1990 Dennis Smeage was named executive director.
In 1993 RESNA left SBA to become a self-managed organization and at that time also hired a full-time executive director, James Geletka, to manage the affairs of the association. Headquarters offices were moved to the current location in Rosslyn, Virginia, in January 1994. In September 2000, Larry Pencak was hired as RESNA's Executive Director. In 2006, Larry announced his resignation and in recognition of his outstanding contributions to RESNA, he was named recipient of the RESNA Distinguished Service Award. In March of 2006, Thomas A. Gorski, CAE, was named as Executive Director. Mr. Gorski left RESNA in October, 2007. Nell Bailey, the long time director of RESNA’s federally funded National Assistive Technology Technical Assistance Partnership served as Interim Director from October 2007 until March 2008. She was officially appointed Executive Director on April 1, 2008 and continued in that role until her retirement in September 2013, whereupon she was succeeded by Michael Brogioli.
RESNA has been successful in competing for Federal funds to conduct specific projects related to assistive technology. A most notable achievement was receiving an award 1989 of a three-year, $1.5 million contract from NIDRR to provide technical assistance to State Tech Act Projects in the areas of service delivery, funding, and systems change. In 1992, 1995 and 2000, RESNA won additional support to continue the provision of national technical assistance to AT Act Programs (56 statewide AT Programs, 33 Alternative Financing Programs and 57 Protection and Advocacy Programs for AT. The AT Act Programs are authorized under the Assistive Technology Act and was administered by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research at the US Department of Education up until 2005. In 2005 and 2010, RESNA competed and won 5-year grants to serve as the technical assistance provider to the AT Act Programs as authorized under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended. The AT Act Programs are currently administered by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, US Department of Education. Additionally, RESNA has received supplemental support to provide 19 states with technical assistance under the Access to Telework Fund, an initiative that was included in former President Bush New Freedom Plan.
RESNA has received additional Federal funding to develop wheelchair testing standards, to assess the manpower and training needs in providing rehabilitation technology through state rehabilitation agencies, and a three-year grant to develop culturally sensitive training materials for assistive technology. Most recently RESNA received a three year grant to provide national guidelines for education of providers and for continuous quality improvement in assistive technology.
A major new activity initiated in 1995 is RESNA's effort to develop a certification program for professionals working as assistive technology service providers. Administered by the Professional Standards Board, the original certification program certified Assistive Technology Practitioners (ATP) and Assistive Technology Suppliers (ATS). Certification for Rehabilitation Engineering Technologists (RET) was developed and initiated in 2002. In 2009, the certification process was consolidated and updated resulting in the ATP and ATS being combined into a single certification for Assistive Technology Professionals (ATP). Early 2010 will see the launch of a new certification for those people who specialize in seating and mobility. The Seating & Mobility Specialist (ATP/SMS) certification recognizes those people who specialize in providing seating and mobility services and products.
Currently, RESNA has approximately 1200 members, the bulk of whom are concentrated in the US and Canada. There are 7 Special Interest Groups (SIG's) and 6 Professional Specialty Groups (PSG's).
RESNA is governed by a 16 member Board of Directors. It implements its objectives through 15 standing committees, a varying number of ad hoc committees and 7 staff members.
The list of RESNA past-presidents reads like a "who's who" in assistive technology and includes: James R. Reswick, ScD (1980); Colin A. McLaurin, ScD (1981); Donald R. McNeal, PhD (1982); Morris Milner, PhD, PE, CCE (1983); Dudley S. Childress, PhD (1984); Sheldon R. Simon, MD (1985-86); C. Gerald Warren, MPA (1987-88); Richard A. Foulds, PhD (1989-90); Douglas A. Hobson, PhD (1991-92); Gregg C. Vanderheiden, PhD (1993-94); Clifford E. Brubaker, PhD (1995-96); Albert M. Cook, PhD, PE (1997-98); Alexandra Enders, OTR (1998-2000); Mary Binion, MA (2000 - 2002); Simon Margolis CO, ATP/S (2002-2004); Rory Cooper, PhD (2004-2006); Glenn Hedman, PE, ATP, RET (2006-2008); Greg McGrew, ME (2008-2010); Jerry Weisman, MSME, ATP, RET (2010-2012); and Alex Mihailidis, PhD, PEng (2012-2014).
The current President is Roger O. Smith, PhD, OT, FAOTA (2016-2018), and the President-Elect is Mary Ellen Buning, PhD, OTR/L (2015-2018).