Gerald Weisman, MSME, ATP, RET
Born: January 1953, Brooklyn, NY
Entry into the AT Field: 1976
How did you get into the rehabilitation engineering and/or assistive technology field?
While I was still in undergraduate school, I obtained a copy of a report from MIT. The report described work by students of Woodie Flowers who had modified toys for children with disabilities. The report sparked an interest in what I could do with my engineering skills and education. I went off to the University of Vermont to study biomechanics and biomedical engineering. I maintained an interest in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology.
What is your professional background?
My undergraduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering and my Masters degree is in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on Biomechanics and Rehabilitation Engineering.
Was there one event, experience or person that played an important role in your decision to get into assistive technology field?
While I was in graduate school at the University of Vermont studying Biomechanics, I took classes in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology with the physical therapy students. I became friends with Susan Edelman who, at the time, was the physical therapy specialist for the “Vermont Interdisciplinary Team (I-Team).” The I-Team was a group of specialists at the University of Vermont who consulted around the state of Vermont in special education classes and for students with disabilities. It was a time when E&J was the predominant wheelchair manufacturer and the choice of wheelchairs and features was extremely limited. One day, Susan complained that she had a number of students who required custom wheelchair seating but she couldn’t find anyone who understood what she needed who could build the seats. Having taken the physical therapy courses I told Susan I understood what she needed and I could build the seats. I started a company called “Vermont Rehabilitation Engineering” and shared a wood shop with a friend who made guitars and started making wheelchair seats and other assistive technology devices.
Why did you choose this field? What was your motivation?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an engineer. “To be an engineer” was what I wrote in my elementary school autograph book. My desire to be an engineer manifested itself primarily in building balsa wood and plastic model planes. I guess I had more interest in building them than flying them, especially since they seemed to crash every time I tried to fly them. It seemed natural to want to be an aeronautical engineer and so applied to universities with aeronautical engineering programs.
My application to universities took place in 1969, soon after the height of the Vietnam war. It was during the interview with an NYU alumnus that he asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Seemed like an easy question to answer since I was being considered for the aeronautical engineering program. “I want to design airplanes,” was my reply. “What kind of planes do you want to design,” he asked. Well, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead so said, “I’m not sure.” He then proceeded to explain the only group of people with enough money to design new planes was the government. “Do you know what type of planes the government buys? he asked. “War planes” I responded. He confronted me and asked, “Is that what you want to do? It was at that moment that my life’s ambitions changed. I didn’t know to what at the time, but I knew I, personally, couldn’t and wouldn’t contribute to the enterprise I had been demonstrating against just the week before. I didn’t go to NYU but stayed in the neighborhood and went to The Cooper Union, the only school I applied to without an aeronautical engineering program.
I believe my journey to bioengineering and rehabilitation engineering began with something my father said to me. Being Holocaust survivors, my parents never missed an opportunity to “kvell” about their children. My older sister was the first in our family to receive a college degree. As I entered my engineering program, my father was proudly telling a friend about my studies and looked at me and told me I should help people with my engineering skills.
Has there been a particular person who was an inspiration or mentor to you? Describe your relationship with that person.
There have been a number of people who have inspired me in the field of rehabilitation engineering. My first job out of graduate school was at the Veterans Administration Prosthetics Center (later called the VA Rehabilitation Engineering Center) on 7th Avenue in New York City. Tony Staros was the director of the VAPC and was a great mentor to me. After leaving the VAPC I went to work at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in New Hampshire. Phil Waterman had started a program to provide vocational and rehabilitation engineering services to people with disabilities in the community. The program was modeled after two existing programs in Washington, DC and Wichita, Kansas. Kali Mallik and Jim Mueller, working in Washington, DC, became very important mentors to me. Their work in providing job accommodations, primarily to white collar workers, was pioneering and provided a great deal of education and skills to me. John Leslie and Leonard “Andy” Anderson were busy providing job accommodations and other types of assistive technologies to people with disabilities through their Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center at the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation and Wichita State University. Their expertise and passion for rehabilitation engineering provided a great deal of knowledge as well as inspiration to me. I learned a great deal about acute rehabilitation and the impact rehabilitation engineering could have in the rehab process by working for Dick Herman.
Rehabilitation Engineering and RESNA leaders such as Rick Foulds, Greg Vanderheiden, Doug Hobson, and Barry Romich encouraged and inspired me to serve the greater the community through the work of RESNA.
Why is rehabilitation engineering and/or assistive technology important to you? Describe the central focus your work in the field. How does your work fit into the field?
Rehabilitation engineering has enabled me to fulfill the promise of “helping people” I made to my father. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing a person benefit from something I’ve designed and fabricated. Nothing compares to seeing a child drive a wheelchair and be independently mobile for the first time because of the controls and modifications you’ve created.
My work, over the course of my career, has covered a large area of the field of rehabilitation engineering. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. My career basically started at about the same time the field of rehabilitation engineering was first being defined and developed in the U.S. Much of my early career involved the development of job accommodations for people with disabilities. A large part of my work involved rehabilitation engineering as it relates to low back pain disability.
What are some of your most memorable successes in the field? How did they make you feel?
I consider my greatest successes to be the assistive technology devices I developed for people with disabilities. There were many times, people would be able to do something or hold a job because of the technology I developed.
Programmatically, I consider my contributions to the EEAT program at Crotched Mountain Rehab Center, the Vermont Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Low Back Pain at the University of Vermont, and the Rehabilitation Engineering Technology Program at Vermont Technical College to be my most memorable successes.
What do you consider your greatest contribution(s) to the field?
I think one of the greatest contributions I was part of was establishing service delivery as an integral and very important part of the rehabilitation engineering field. Along with folks like John Leslie, Leonard Anderson, and Dave Law, I contributed to the recognition of the importance of rehabilitation engineering service delivery and its inclusion in activities of RESNA. In addition to contributing to the addition of rehabilitation engineering services to vocational rehabilitation in amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, I contributed to the writing and development of the Technology-Related Assistance Act of 1988 and testified to the US House Committee in support of the bill.
What are some of your most memorable failures in the field? How did you deal with them?
One of my greatest disappointments is, in spite of establishing a RESNA certification for Rehabilitation Engineering Technologists (RET), we have been unable to establish and maintain a robust certification for rehabilitation engineers and technologists working in service delivery. My personal response has been to continue to pursue such a certification and do what I could to encourage the RESNA leadership to consider certification for rehabilitation engineers.
Describe what you consider to be significant changes in the field since you first entered it.
There have been a great many changes since I first entered the field. I was lucky enough to have entered the field at a time when it was blossoming. There was much work to do and I was privileged to be part of it. The biggest change in the field is clearly the development of new technologies. I entered the field before the era of personal computers. Obviously, personal computers and associated technologies, including the Internet, have expanded opportunities for people with disabilities and have made great strides in leveling the playing field for them. The development of universal design concepts have made significant changes in the design of products and the environment to the benefit of people with disabilities and functional limitations.
When I entered the field, I could be a generalist, someone who knew enough about most aspects of the field to operate in them. Significant changes and advances in technology and policies have made specialization more common and important.
What do you perceive as the most important advances in the field? How have they affected your work?
As stated above, I think advances in technology, particularly computer, sensor technologies, and the Internet have significantly changed the opportunities for people with disabilities and the work of the rehabilitation engineer and technologist. Advances in policy and the rights of people with disabilities, i.e. the Americans with Disabilities Act, have contributed significantly to making people with disabilities more visible and accepted in society.
What do you see as the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology?
With advances in technology, the pursuit of universal design principles and greater acceptance of people with disabilities and functional limitations in society, the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology will see fewer specialized technologies for people with disabilities and more use of general purpose or consumer products and technologies to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Future rehabilitation engineers and technologists will have to understand how to meet these needs by utilizing generally available products and technologies. Challenges in accomplishing this will be how to fund these technologies that may not otherwise be considered “medically necessary” but will fulfill the needs of those with functional limitations.
Describe your role within RESNA. How has RESNA helped you in your career?
I joined RESNA as a charter member recognizing the importance of such an organization. I served in a number of leadership positions including Secretary, Board of Directors and President (2010-2012). I contributed to RESNA recognizing service delivery as an important aspect of rehabilitation engineering and participated in pursuing and establishing certification in assistive technology, particularly the Rehabilitation Engineering Technologist certification.
Being a member of RESNA has been an integral part of my career as a rehabilitation engineer and a very important part of my life. Being able 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 resulted in lifelong friendships. It is often said RESNA becomes a part of your family. That has certainly been true for me.
What do you see as the future of RESNA?
I think and hope RESNA will continue to be one of the very few voices in support of the rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology professionals and field. RESNA will continue to be important in assuring quality in service delivery, product development and educational and training programs. I think RESNA will continue to have to redefine the field and what it means "To maximize the health and well being of people with disabilities through technology."
What would you say to those just entering the field?
Follow your passion! Chances are you found this field because you want to help people. Find ways to help people. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Greg Vanderheiden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.” Get involved, as soon as possible, in advancing the field and profession. RESNA is a great vehicle for that. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others to ask questions, any questions! As Garth Brooks says, “Choose to chance the rapids, And dare to dance the tide!