Gregory W. McGrew, BSME, MEBME
Born: May 22, 1956 in Alden, KS
Entry into the AT Field: September, 1985
How I got into the field
I graduated from University of Kentucky in 1979 and started working for GE as a turbine-generator field engineer. Wanting something more engaging and heart-felt from the results of my work, I found a graduate engineering program focusing on rehabilitation engineering at University of Virginia, was accepted, and attended starting in 1985. The program lasted two years and included a good deal of hands on rehabilitation engineering work with clients - primarily in seating and mobility, but also in environmental control and job accommodation.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
My lack of inspiration for the work I was in caused me to look for a way to apply my education where the returns were more human, and more direct. Finding the graduate program at UVA and speaking with its director, Dr. Steven I. Reger, I became clearly convinced rehabilitation engineering was what I had been looking for.
Why I chose the AT field
First, it met my needs for applying my engineering education to more directly helping people in a biomedical field. Secondly, I was excited when I entered the field because it was relatively new, and there was (and still is) much to explore and develop.
My inspiration and mentor
Dr. Reger, mentioned above, and certainly Colin McLaurin - also at UVA, and one of RESNA's founders - had significant influence on my education in the field and approach to the adaptive needs of people with disabilities. More of a peer, Stephen Sprigle was a couple years ahead of me in the graduate program at UVA, and went on to get his PhD. He and I have remained close colleagues in the field of rehabilitation engineering, as well as good personal friends since UVA. His passion and dedication to RESNA and the field have been inspirational, and he's always been generous with his knowledge and insights.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
As the field has evolved, my role has changed as well. My interest and efforts are now focused on the testing of products used by people with disabilities - primarily the usability of such products (both assistive technology and mainstream commercial products). I run a usability testing lab that is currently testing feature phone and smartphone products, tablets, and an assistive technology product for people with reading disabilities. I feel that these technologies offer great potential for enhancing the lives and independence of people with various disabilities, but need to be evaluated for the quality and effectiveness of their human factors design by people with disabilities.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
One that comes to mind involved a man working as a bell man at an old hotel. This gentleman had developed a heart condition that made it difficult for him to negotiate steps while hauling someone's luggage. He was in danger of losing his job because of this. I was able to find and adapt what at that time was an obscure technology produced in Scandinavia that could climb stairs through a series of motorized rotating and locking wheel sets. We purchased this product and adapted it to allow the man to transport luggage of various types. Our custom work was relatively simple, but problem solving, finding the right technology and being able to customize it - and saving this man's job in doing so - was a very satisfying and memorable experience.
My most memorable failures
The 'failure' that comes to mind was very much a learning experience for me. I had only been working as a rehabilitation engineer for a few months when I was introduced to a man with spastic cerebral palsy that assembled a type of high-pressure water valve. Assembly involved attaching various springs and nuts to a metal core, and was very time consuming for the man due to his fine motor problems. He completed 4 in a full day while others without his disability completed 10 to 12. His manager wanted him to be able to increase his productivity to around 8 units per day. So I was excited about the opportunity to design and build a set of assembly fixtures that would permit this man to use gross motor movements to more quickly and efficiently assemble the valves. My design worked well and I was certain the man would be thrilled to have his job made easier and him be more productive. We delivered the fixtures, showed him how they worked, and had him demonstrate proper use of them. He did so, and seemed very happy to have them.
Three weeks later I returned to the site to find he had gone back to his old familiar way of assembly and the fixtures sat idle. His old assembly method, while not as efficient, was much more comfortable and familiar and that was very important to him. His manager valued the employee and overlooked his reduced production. This was a valuable lesson in understanding the importance of knowing what issues, feelings, and relationships are critical to all parties when carrying out job accommodation.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
One of the biggest changes is certainly the availability of off-the-shelf assistive technology products - not just their existence, but the mechanisms people have for acquiring them. That is not to say that there still isn't a big need for more people to have access to AT, but it is much better than when I started.
The current explosion of mobile IT and it's incredibly rapid evolution seems to me to be the most significant advance in assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering. Engineers, clinicians, and consumers are all struggling to keep up with what opportunities the current technologies may present, when software and hardware advances create new ways of thinking about how to address current accessibility and independence issues, and what was current becomes obsolete.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I think RE and AT will increasingly involve the application of sensor technologies combined with digital processing to offer an increasing variety of ways for people with all kinds of disabilities to access, interact with, and to a certain extent, control their world.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I will always willingly offer the organization and the field any insights and knowledge I may have gained during my years as a RESNA member and leader, and as someone long engaged in working with people with disabilities on their AT needs.
On the future of RESNA
I am encouraged by what I see in those coming forward to be active leaders in the organization. We have very bright and capable people from each of RESNA's constituencies willing to devote time, skills, and effort to move RESNA forward. To me, moving forward includes expanding RESNA's membership and its influence.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
In many ways, the field is still in its infancy, or seems so because our activities and players and institutions are so scattered and isolated from one another. I would ask someone new to do what they could to bring those working in all areas of AT and RE together, and I'd tell them that RESNA still offers the best foundation for making that happen.