Member Spotlight: A Conversation with Douglas Hobson, Ph.D.


Member Spotlight: A Conversation with Douglas Hobson, Ph.D.

Date: Monday, November 23, 2020
Category: Member News

Editor’s Note: Forty years ago, Douglas Hobson, Ph.D., came together with four other Rehabilitation Engineering enthusiasts (Tony Staros, Colin McLaurin, Joseph Traub, and Jim Resnick) to found RESNA. We spoke to him about those early days and his thoughts for the future. (In the picture of RESNA Past Presidents below from RESNA's 2015 conference, Doug is the tallest one in the back row.) 

Past Presidents at RESNA 2015 Conference

How did the founding of RESNA come about?

In 1979 I was part of a rag-tag group of Rehabilitation Engineering and assistive technology enthusiasts that came together in Atlanta to found RESNA. The vision for RESNA came out of the US government’s (NIH/VA) funding of seven Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs). These centers wanted to consolidate the dissemination of their research outcomes. In addition, they were looking for an interdisciplinary organizational structure that would foster the development of the emerging fields of Rehabilitation Engineering (RE) and Assistive Technology. Another underlying premise was that RESNA could become the vehicle for channeling rehabilitation technology in order to enhance the quality of life for persons with disabilities.

Describe your career in assistive technology.

During my 40+ year career in AT my focus was primarily in service delivery, then in specialized seating research, wheelchair seating, wheelchair transportation safety, and finally standards development.

As a newly minted Canadian mechanical engineer, I experienced the incredible challenges faced by families whose mothers had taken the Thalidomide drug during pregnancy (read more about Thalidomide babies here). This experience and others that followed, involving an array of pediatric disabilities needing the support of assistive technology, ignited a passion to build multidisciplinary AT services delivery programs. Early efforts featured physician-lead clinics supported by technical facilities and therapy OT/PT/Speech services that collectively: prescribed, fabricated, trained and maintained custom AT devices for children with both congenital and acquired disabilities.

Later, I worked in research and development as funding for wheelchair seating technology became available from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDDR). Some of this work was related to my pursuit of a Ph.D. in Bioengineering, which I successfully defended in 1989.  In 1993, I was invited to join the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology (RST) at the Health Sciences Center at the University of Pittsburgh. There I served as Director of two, five-year consecutive RERC grant awards, as well as a faculty member involved in teaching AT classes and supervising Ph.D. students interested in AT research. These RERC activities led to several commercial products, patents, peer-reviewed publications, and of course, presentations and workshops at RESNA annual conferences.

What’s an aspect of RESNA you’re particularly proud of?

RESNA’s commitment to the development of assistive technology standards, dating back to the early 1980s, is a major unsung contribution to the welfare of persons with disabilities. At that time, RESNA was granted the sole responsibility for managing the development of domestic, voluntary consensus standards, for AT by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and also as the US representative for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This international activity was equally important to ensure that AT products made in other countries and imported into the US, or US - AT export products would not encounter border restrictions. This has required tremendous contributions of time and volunteer resources, mainly from RESNA members and often their companies, in order to meet the rigorous standards development and periodic review guidelines stipulated by ANSI and ISO.

To date, RESNA’s Assistive Technology Standards Board has published testing standards for 18 types of AT. Manufacturers test their products to these voluntary standards in order to demonstrate compliance in terms of safety and useability, so that prescribers and users have access to reliable product performance information.  Forty years later, RESNA’s enduring commitment to technical standards remains a significant part of its legacy.

Looking forward, what excites you about RESNA’s future?

I’m thrilled to see RESNA becoming a virtual organization. This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than by the Covid-19 necessitated virtual annual conference held in September 2020.

Being retired, I have been unable to attend a RESNA conference for at least 10 years. This year, while I was at my cottage on a remote lake in central Canada, with a satellite internet connection, I was able to attend the RESNA conference. Due to the daily pre-meeting social feeds, I was able to meet new people. During conference hours I was able to pick and choose what sessions or presentations were of most interest, knowing that if I missed one due to my time zone or programming conflicts, they would be recorded and made available at a later time. It was a terrific experience, and the staff should be given full marks for a job very well done.  

For me, this experience demonstrates how moving to a virtual platform can reach out to anyone, anywhere. Not only are the costs lower, there are a significant number of people who could attend that otherwise would not have been able to. Integrating evolving communications technology to make the conference more accessible is a huge step forward for RESNA.

Several years ago, a subgroup appointed by the RESNA Board of Directors was tasked to develop a concept paper that would give RESNA a compelling presence on what was then the early days of the World Wide Web. We called it “RESNAWorld.” It excites me to think that we are closer to seeing that concept become a reality, where RESNA can share information and further the advancement of assistive technology on a global scale.

Do you have any general advice for AT professionals?

What advice does an 82-year old RESNA retiree give to todays’ AT professionals? Well, first of all, don’t let the workings of RESNA take your focus off why RESNA was created in the first place. RESNA is only a vehicle for coordinating and channeling rehabilitation technology to enhance the quality of life for persons with disabilities.

Second: Strive to stay current and welcome change. Both RESNA and assistive technology must constantly change as the world about us changes. Be open to new ideas and do not hesitate to step up and become a RESNA leader for positive change.


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