Gregg C. Vanderheiden, PhD
Born: October 27, 1949 - Michigan
Entry into the AT Field: 1971
How I got into the field
I was tricked into this field. At the time, I was a senior in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was working in a research lab as a technician when another student came in looking for one of the researchers to see whether that person's eye-gaze research might be used to give a young boy with severe CP a means to write and talk. I started making suggestions, and after listening and claiming he could not understand, he convinced me to leave work and just "show him what I meant" at the local school. Well, I went, I failed, I got hooked. (Actually, one idea worked but was even slower than the technique he had). I never met someone with a disability before (times were different then). I met a lad who, through home schooling, had learned to (sometimes irreverently) communicate using a piece of wood on which the letters of the alphabet had been burned with a wood burner. It was slow, tedious and required the undivided attention of a second person, which was not available in the classroom or, for that matter, at home for extended periods of time. Intrigued with the problem, I quit my job at the lab and joined with David Lamers (the person who had tricked me into going out to the school). We formed an interdisciplinary group of students to try to discover an effective method for this individual to speak and write. As we succeeded and word spread of our work, we began getting inquiries from throughout the state and from outside the state from individuals, parents and clinicians working with individuals who were similarly unable to communicate effectively. David Lamers had a wife and two children, with a third on the way, so that April when we both graduated with our bachelors degrees, he went off to work at G.D. Searle. I never did escape. And that undergraduate student group eventually grew into the Trace R&D Center.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
The major influence was the people with disabilities that I met. The incident above was where it started. But the continual flow of interesting new people who happened to have disabilities is what kept me.
Why I chose the AT field
I did not really choose the field; it sort of chose me. My motivation at first was just to help one individual, and then another, and then to gather the information that I needed (through reading, research, and education) to address the problems of these individuals better. The numbers of individuals and the range of problems just grew from there. I never intended to do anything as a long-range plan, just solve the problems in front of me and learn how to do a better job of that. I had no intention of forming a group or building a center. I just found that the problems required more expertise and effort than I had, and as other people joined...
My inspiration and mentor
There were many. I actually made a list and it was half of this page. When I started this work, there was no one at my university that was doing any work like this nor did I know of anyone anywhere else. However, that changed as I started digging in - and the list is long. A few key people who were mentors or who opened doors that enabled me to succeed were Professors Richard Marleau, C. Daniel Geisler, Dudley Childress, Vincent Rideout, David Yoder, and Lyle Lloyd.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
It is important to me as a tool; as an instrument. Mostly, it is important to the people that we serve and work with. The field is a means for those of us working in it to learn from each other, to practice what we have learned and a way to help others, and to share what we have learned with others - who can help still others. Kind of like air, water, and money, the field is important because it allows us to do what we do.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
Lots of memories. As to 'greatest'… Some were the term "augmentative' to re-enforce that we supplement what people have, the KEI, GIDEI standards, the Access features now in Windows, the Mac, and Unix; EZ Access now in Post Offices, airports, and memorials; and the standards work. All were done by my team - not me but I think they are what will contribute most over time outside of students - which we can make no claim to but which are our best contributions to the future.
My most memorable failures
That is a good question. We tend to quickly forget those, eh? I failed to get a big NIH contract once and failed on my first attempt to get an RERC. Many failures turned out to be just setbacks since, if it was important enough to do, it was important enough to keep coming at it. Probably the most memorable failure though was when my first ideas about how to create a communication aid for Lydell (the boy who got me involved in all this in the beginning) failed to survive contact with the client. That failure, and a determination to figure out a solution, is what got me hooked in the field. Other than that, no failure stands out from the rest. It seems like I am always failing and trying again. The story of my life.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
Well it has matured so much it is hardly comparable. More funding now, but less than there was for some groups in the past. In the beginning, there was also more of a sense of adventure and pioneering. The different disciplines all gathered at RESNA as the only place where they could really focus on technology and disability. As each discipline developed its own specializations in these areas, they came less to RESNA for this. Also, as the fields have grown you lose some of the flavor of the smaller efforts. I think I also see a little less exploration going on. People seem to play it safer and work for "deliverables" and milestones. There does not seem to be as much open exploration. This may change however if more resources can make funding less tight and involve more, newer and younger people.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I have had many roles over the years. When RESNA was first founded, I was its publication chair and helped shepherd in its first journal. I served on a bunch of committees and eventually as president, past president and now jolly good fellow. RESNA really helped to provide a connection to and knowledge about a wide range of ways that engineers and technologists and people with technology interests can make a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities. It also gave a place to share information and to help others. Mostly I have been a student.
On the future of RESNA
Providing a way for the members of RESNA to serve. Most people think of RESNA as being a place that should do something for them. What really made RESNA work was when people saw it as a way for them to contribute to the field. If RESNA can be the mechanism to allow people to contribute to the field in a broader way than they can in their daily jobs, then it will be a thriving organization. It has to be a place that people come to give and to share.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
It is a great field. It is not as monetarily rewarding as many others, but you will find as you get older that you will never regret what you did with your life when you spend it in service to others in a way you enjoy. Just pick something (anything) you love that helps people and do the best job you can. You will never be sorry.