Date: Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Category: Member News
RESNA Fellow and Past President Gerald “Jerry” Weisman, MSME, ATP, RET joined RESNA when it was founded in 1979. We spoke to Jerry about how the field of assistive technology has evolved over his career and his thoughts on the future of RESNA.
How did you get your start in assistive technology?
Ever since I was young, I wanted to be an engineer of some kind. As an undergraduate in mechanical engineering, I developed an interest in what mechanical engineering could do for people with disabilities. I started making wheelchair seating in 1976, when I was working on my masters’ degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on biomechanics.
How have you seen the field of assistive technology develop over the years?
When I entered the field of assistive technology, it was really just getting started in many ways. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were emerging groups of people with disabilities whose needs weren’t met by current technology.
For example, after finishing my masters’ degree, I ended up at the VA Prosthetic Center. At the time, this was one of the preeminent rehabilitative engineering centers in the world. Thanks to advances in medical technology including the broader use of antibiotics and the use of helicopters – Vietnam veterans were coming home having survived injuries not possible in previous wars resulting in disabilities such as spinal cord injuries. This wasn’t the only factor, but it was an example I had up-close experience with. Many of the people at the VA Prosthetic Center at that time were incredibly influential in the field as a whole.
At the same time, people with disabilities were organizing and making their voices heard in new ways. Their efforts led to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act in 1974, which created NIDILRR and started funding research centers for rehabilitation engineering.
All of this translated to a need for new kinds of enabling technology. Many of the pioneers of rehabilitation engineering worked in aerospace engineering before working with people with disabilities. My original intent was to be an aeronautical engineer before I entered college.
Into the 1980s and beyond, there was an emphasis on the needs of actual assistive technology service providers and care delivery. After all, the most spectacular tech innovations in the world are meaningless without access and skilled professionals to deliver them. While RESNA had always welcomed people of all backgrounds, including consumers of assistive technology, It was at this point that RESNA began to expand from a society of engineers into something broader, like it is today.
In 1988, the Technology-Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act created new initiatives for service delivery. This helped spur the development of more commercially available AT products which, in addition to advances in personal computing and other technology, helped level the playing field dramatically for people with disabilities.
You helped start the Fundamentals course. Why was there a need for this course?
We created the Fundamentals Course with the goal of educating members and the public about the importance of AT. We recognized that in most undergraduate courses for occupational therapy, physical therapy and the like, students would have maybe one course for AT, if that, in their undergraduate curriculum. The best in the field developed their skills by providing service, not from any formal educational program.
There was a need for an educational component, and the idea of certification. In providing AT services, you have to know a little about everything to deliver quality care and do no harm. There’s a foundational knowledge base that no single program was providing at the time. Our Fundamentals Course is about providing AT professionals with the basic knowledge, they need to deliver consistent, high-quality care.
What does RESNA offer to professionals?
RESNA provides a family and a community to its members. It offers a platform for people to collaborate with other professionals. Speaking for myself, I can say that the ability to network with other RESNA members, most of whom are leaders in the fields of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology, has been indispensable to my career. This networking has also resulted in lifelong friendships, and it’s been a source of professional inspiration. Rehabilitation Engineering and RESNA leaders such as John Leslie, Rick Foulds, Greg Vanderheiden, Doug Hobson, and Barry Romich encouraged and inspired me to serve the greater the community through the work of RESNA.
Looking forward, what are your thoughts on RESNA’s future?
I believe that RESNA will continue to shape the field and what it means "to maximize the health and well-being of people with disabilities through technology.” The world is changing rapidly, and not just in terms of technology. People with disabilities are more visible, more accepted and more integrated into the rest of the world than they were when RESNA was founded. At the same time, as AT professionals know, while advances in technology will continue to benefit people with disabilities, getting funding for these technologies will continue to be a challenge..
The creativity and energy of our members gives me confidence that RESNA will meet these challenges and adapt to them. We have already achieved a great deal and I know that we will achieve even more in the coming years.
Do you have any general advice for AT professionals?
Follow your passion! Really! Chances are you found this field because you want to help people, so do that – find ways to help people. Get involved, as soon as possible, in advancing the field and profession. RESNA is a great vehicle for that. And never hesitate to ask questions!