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Interview with Bill Peterson, the 2020 Colin McLaurin Lecturer

Date: Friday, December 20, 2019
Category: Member News

RESNA: What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the field of rehabilitative technology since you entered it?

When I first came into this filed there was very few commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products available to clinicians so it was up to rehab engineers and other rehab professionals to design, tweak, modify, or custom build assistive devices that would meet the needs of their clients.  Today there is a wealth of products available to choose from reducing dramatically the need for customized products.  However, matching the right technology with the user is still paramount and may require modifications and adjustments to ensure the product fully meets the needs of the user.

Why do you do what you do?

As a person who spent nearly 4 months in an acute rehab facility due to my spinal cord injury, I was exposed to a very diverse group of people from different walks of life, with different functional abilities, and different yet similar dreams.  There were high quads, paras, people with traumatic brain injuries, and stroke survivors.  There were young Native American men straight off their reservations (Apache and Navaho) who not only had to deal with their new found disability but also had to contend with devastating cultural biases. There were parents of children, young teenagers and the elderly.  I watched all of us struggle as we tried to bring some sort of normalcy to our lives while at the same time trying to make sense of it all.  Technology played an important role in all our lives during those early days of rehab but at the same time it became terribly obvious to me that there was a tremendous need for new lines of assistive and rehabilitative technologies.  There was a need for someone with a technical background to work in concert with allied health professionals.  At the time, rehab engineering was in its infancy but I knew that I wanted to position myself so I could, at some level, improve the lives of people with disabilities.  That is when I set a course to become a biomedical engineer. 

When you were at the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, you managed the agency’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) program. What does that program do, and how did you help expand it?   

In a nut shell, the RERC program is a network of engineering centers dedicated to improving the lives of persons with disabilities.  Each RERC is responsible to conducting disability-related  research and development in a specific area such a deaf and hard-of-hearing, low vision and blindness, wheelchair seating, accessible transportation, etc.  When I first went to work for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) - now the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) - there were 15 RERCs and the program had an annual budget of $11 million. The program was struggling for many reasons. Centers were underfunded, the program was poorly managed, and there were some relics that were continually refunded do to institutions rather than need. We eliminated several RERCs, created a couple new ones that focused on new research priorities, and increased the funding values for each new RERC.  Ultimately the RERC Program was recognized by President Bush in his New Freedom Initiative as a Program worthy of expanding. When I left NIDRR the RERC program had grown from 15 to 20 Centers and the Program budget increased from $11 million to $20 million. I had initiated annual project directors meetings, increased collaboration between RERCs, increased competition for new RERCs, and initiated RERC Row within the RESNA conference to showcase each Center and their respective research and development activities.

Any ideas about the future of RESNA and/or the profession?

I believe there will always be a need for rehabilitation engineers even though it remains a challenge to get many of their services paid for.  Same is true for assistive technologies. I believe we need to standardize as much as we can so that more people/clinicians can benefit.  Baby-boomers are moving into the twilight of their careers. With such a large bolus of people moving into retirement age there is tremendous need to keep them functional independent and capable of living on their own. Rehab engineers and other allied health professionals can and will play an important role in this process for years to come. 

As a professional organization RESNA is quite small which makes it difficult to weather bad times. However, RESNA has already done that and I believe the future is bright.  I believe RESNA sometimes struggles with its identity. AOTA is geared for OTs. APTA is geared for PTs. ASHA is geared for SLPs. RESNA is unique in that it welcomes and is made up by many allied health professionals, including rehab engineers and AT specialists. I believe this is a strength but it also creates challenge - especially when funding gets tight.  RESNA cannot be all things to all people.  A huge strength is all the standards work supported by RESNA and of course the ATP program. 

How do you feel about being recognized as the Colin McLaurin lecturer? 

It is an honor to be recognized as this year’s Colin McLaurin lecturer. As I said in my acceptance video, I know many people who are as worthy, if not more worthy, than I to receive this award. Knowing that and knowing most of those who came before me, I feel very honored to be selected as part of this elite group and to be recognized for my work and contribution over the years. 

When was your first RESNA conference? What was it like?

I believe my first RESNA Conference was in 1990. Prior to this I had attended BME conferences. But when I showed up at RESNA it was the first time I was surrounded by allied health professionals, OTs, PTs, SLPs, Rehab Engineers and AT Specialists who were of like mind and knew then that I was in the right place. 

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I spent the last 14 years of my career working to standardize our approach for ensuring information technology (IT) is accessible for everyone.  As Executive Director for the Office of Accessible Systems and Technology located within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, I spearheaded an initiative to standardize how we test IT for accessibility based upon federal standards created by the U.S. Access Board.  This program, known as Trusted Tester, has been implemented across many government agencies and adopted by major IT companies.


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