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Fellow Denis Anson

Denis Anson

Born: December 1, 1951 - Pendleton, OR

Denis Anson

Entry into the AT Field: 1978

How I got into the field

My training is as an Occupational Therapist. I had never heard of this field until after I met Bob, a 16 year old with a C5-6 level spinal cord injury. Getting to know Bob started me thinking about how he could do things. At the time, I was working as assistant to a general contractor. I started thinking about the significance of what I was doing with my life. Building a hotel enables tired travelers to rest for a night, but they will not really be affected. If you give someone a skill, restore part of their function, you change their entire life. I decided that I want to have a larger, more lasting impact on life than just building warehouses.

Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field

When my wife (then fiancé) introduced me to Bob, I learned he had been inside the hospital for eighteen months! No outings, no fieldtrips, nothing. I arranged to borrow a tool van for the weekend and built some very basic ramps. Getting permission to take Bob was a major project. We took Bob to the Organ Grinder pizza parlor in Portland, OR known for the second largest pipe organ in North America. Bob was concerned that "everyone will stare" at him. Bob's OT created a "pizza holder" using a plan for a sandwich holder, made from low-temperature thermal-plastic. When hot pizza was put into the holder, it promptly drooped. Lesson in AT - define the conditions! Bob had such a good time, he didn't notice if anyone stared at him. After pizza, we took Bob to a drive in, to see "On Any Sunday," a movie about motorcycle riding, one of Bob's past interests. Back at the hospital, Bob's family was raising a ruckus, because Bob wasn't there. (They had given permission.) My fiancé asked Bob if he wanted help to confront his family, but feeling good, he said he could handle it himself. I learned the power of being able to do things for yourself.

Why I chose the AT field

When I started my career as an OT, I was convinced computer technology would be very important to individuals with disabilities. I thought the best way to influence the lives of people with disabilities was to assure that their therapists had information about what I consider to be the most powerful tool that we have available - technological accommodations. My focus became, and has remained, the education of the clinician about the availability, application, and value of assistive technologies. This started formally with my publication of The OT's Computer, a newsletter describing clinical applications of computers, both in direct client treatment and support and in clinical management. It was a small effort, but over eight years maintained a subscriber list of around 100 facilities and therapists around the world. Later, when I began teaching at the University of Washington, we received a grant that funded three regional workshops per year, in addition to which, I presented at many local, regional, national, and even a few international conferences. (The invitation to speak in Cairo, Egypt, was a great honor!)

My inspiration and mentor

There are a few people who have been great inspirations to me. My close friend Charlie Kellner taught me not to be limited by what is thought to be possible. When Charlie worked at Apple as an Educational Software Specialist, his group staff meetings used to regularly start with, "What impossible thing has Charlie done this morning?" And he had usually done two or three. Paul Schweda, the developer of the Adaptive Firmware Card, may be one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. His ability to see possibilities, and how to actualize them is profound. Gregg Vanderheiden, of course, has been a role model to everyone of my generation in this field. The depth and breadth of his work in AT is vast. But perhaps the greatest inspiration to my personal work was Dorothy Haenle, of Spokane Washington. Dorothy was providing innovative technology services to people in the area with unfailing enthusiasm and no budget. It was to make life easier for clinicians like Dorothy, and for her clients, that I have worked to spread the word.

Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work

As an occupational therapist, my primary goal has always been to allow my client's to have control over their lives. Because much of my clinical work was in the area of spinal cord injury and head injury, where deficits are forever, the most powerful tool available has been assistive. After working in the clinic for a number of years, I realized that I could have a broader impact by teaching therapists about assistive technology, rather than being the primary service provider.

My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field

One of my clients told me, "It's like you gave me back my hands!" Her feeling of independence after 14 years of being unable to do anything for herself was immensely rewarding. Over the past 20 years, I've had a distinct influence on the clinical outlook of 500 students. At least half of those have become able to integrate assistive technology into their treatment planning. Over that time frame, several thousand individuals with disabilities will have had the opportunity to benefit from the assistive technology training I was able to provide. This is much more influence that I could possibly have had in the clinic. Not all students "get it." When one does, and really becomes an advocate, that's when I feel like it's all worth while. I've also been able to further the field of AT by facilitating a collaboration between AOTA and RESNA, and between some vendors of AT.

My most memorable failures

The greatest failures are the students who are nearing the end of their education, and clearly are not understanding anything they have been taught. (OT as well as AT) When a senior OT student asked a classmate in the hall, "What's a C4?" after a test on spinal cord injury, I knew that she shouldn't be allowed out with real patients. Probably my biggest readjustment was one of expectations. When I first started working with AT, I felt like all my students could become expert AT providers. After working with Roger Smith and Joy Hammel to develop levels of clinical expertise, I recognized that the problem solving that I enjoy so much isn't something that the typical therapist does.

Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it

Al Cook has said there are almost no AT devices currently in use that weren't in existence, in some form, 20 years ago. But there have been vast changes in levels of sophistication. Twenty years ago, many of the interventions for computer access lived outside the computer. With increasing sophistication, most of the solutions moved to software. This change made manufacture much simpler, but also created many problems with interactions. Now, it looks like access technologies are moving back out of the computer into outboard devices. But the devices are much more powerful and sophisticated. The concept of Universal Design is a very significant advance.

On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology

If the concept of universal design becomes widely accepted, the need for assistive technology will decrease, because people with disabilities will be able to use mainstream devices without accommodation. However, it is generally recognized that "universal design" isn't really universal, so there will always be a need for specialized devices for those with greater degrees of limitation. The limited perspective of the designers of mainstream technologies, who simply cannot conceive of people not being able to use things the "normal way" requires their education.

My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me

I've served many roles within RESNA. In my early years, I made a number of paper, poster, and instructional course presentations. A bit over 10 years ago I took over the computer tech lab. I've been a member of the RESNA board, and have been the RESNA webmaster, increasing the accessibility of RESNA materials.

On the future of RESNA

I want to see RESNA become the professional organization for ATP/ATS/RETs. We are the credentialing organization, but not the "home" for those working in AT. In part, this is because AT is not a primary profession at this point, but is an add-on to OT, PT, SLP, or engineering. To be a mature profession, AT should become a specialization in itself. RESNA should be "home" to all AT professionals, not someplace we visit once a year.

My suggestions for those just entering the field

There is a great risk in AT to focus on the technology. What we do isn't about the technology, it is about enabling people to do the things that are important to them. AT is a great enabler, but the focus must be on the ability of the client to perform the task. If the client can't, or won't use the technology to perform the task, it's not the right answer.