Jessica Pedersen, MBA, OTR/L, ATP
Born: November 15, 1957 - Evanston, IL
Entry into the AT Field: 1979
How I got into the field
I actually started out as a student working with a person who was severely burned. We had to modify every piece of ADL equipment he used because he didn't have any fingers and we only had a ¾" space between a stub of thumb and the top of his index metacarpal. I became more interested in adaptive equipment, AT, and seating when I was at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) for my first job.
I was working with individuals providing OT at the RIC and one of my friends told me about a course she attended by Adrienne Bergen on the use of tri-wall. I started making tri-wall inserts for the kids I was working with and got into the whole gamut of seating. There was a rehab engineer working at RIC named Ken Kozole who used his skills as an engineer and OT to provide the definitive seating at RIC and created many AT devices for ADL, leisure, or work use. He spurred my interest in RESNA. He was the first clinical rehab engineer at RIC, recruited by Dudley Childress.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
I first met Ken Kozole and Dudley Childress at RIC. I went to a seating course in the early 80's where I met Elaine Trefler and Doug Hobson. An OT peer gave me Adrienne Bergen's phone number. I listened to them speak, saw what they did, and wanted to do something similar.
I was working with a young child who was post drowning who had severe extensor tone. I was using several different techniques to get her to relax including handling and casting. One of my friends was showing me some handling techniques and said the Pogon stroller I was putting her into after therapy was diminishing the effects of my work by not providing adequate support. After seeing this little girl change in her ability to maintain a seated position, I learned more about seating. There were no courses or books that I could find at that time, but I did get Adrienne Bergen's name from my friend. I called her and she sent me her course notes and told me about a book she had written. I bought the book. I loved working with my hands and had an appreciation (maybe not a skill) in mechanical things. I am thankful for the rehab engineers who always let me try my hand at fabrication, and even more thankful when they gently stepped in to make sure it was done right.
My inspiration and mentor
As stated before, I have had many mentors in the years I have been in this field and continue to have them. The mentors would include the four I mentioned previously, Adrienne, Elaine, Doug, and Ken, as well as Gerry Warren, Cliff Brubaker, Mary Binion, Gregg Vanderheiden, Nell Bailey, Al Cook, Kathy Riley, Kerry Jones, Cathy Bazata, Jean Minkel, Glenn Hedman, and Susan Johnson Taylor. Each provided a different aspect of mentoring. Some assisted me in my pursuit of clinical expertise, some in advocacy, some in leadership. All embraced the role with enthusiasm and shared freely their knowledge of what I wanted to learn. In many cases there was an exchange between us. We learned from each other, however I really do feel these are my mentors who I recognize as contributing to help me grow as an AT professional and a person.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
Without the influx of AT into my area of seating, I would not be where I am today. I have enjoyed a wonderful career in almost all areas of seating for large clinics, manufacturers, suppliers, universities, private agencies, governmental agencies, and owned a private practice. All have been enlightening and rewarding opportunities.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
I am been very fortunate to work with wonderful rehab engineers, suppliers, manufacturers, researchers, policy makers, and therapists. We have, as a team been successful in meeting the needs of many individuals with disabilities. The passion that we have for our work shines through and makes the tedium and frustrations worthwhile. As for my greatest contribution to the field, I am still working on that.
My most memorable failures
WOW! Well, for the most part, I didn't recognize them as mistakes until years later when I would look at the pictures I took and couldn't believe I thought it was such a great outcome. The ones that I did recognize right away, I was able to work out with the supplier or engineer I was working with. I would say that the majority of mistakes were assumptions that something would work without the ability to try it out.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
Funding is the most critical and it has driven our profession. We used to get paid for having a large team of professionals involved and more time to make a decision. I think the hardest thing for me is to watch the way rehab engineering has changed in the clinical arena. I find it hard that the AMA has yet to recognize them as a profession and award them a professional code. I have a hard time knowing how many centers were open throughout the United States that catered to design and fabrication of equipment for people with disabilities. Most of those centers are gone and there has been little to replace their work. I still strongly see the need for clinical rehab engineers in medical and work settings.
The influx of equipment and technology has been the most exciting change. The choices that an individual has are overwhelming, yet a wonderful change from the early 80's. The advances in technology as stated before are impressive. What we used to make in the 80's is commercially available today. Some of the prices have gone down. I remember the first voice activated word processors costing thousands. I remember the loudness and slowness of the first power wheelchairs. I remember the hours it would take to fabricate a foot box, back or headrest with a patient waiting on a mat for it. Thankfully those days have changed.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
The future of rehab engineering as one of the premier research and development professions for enhancing the lives of people with disabilities is, in my opinion, great. The future of the rehab engineer in a clinical setting is a little more tenuous. I think the worksite applications will continue to grow. I am concerned mostly about the home, ADL, and seating applications. I am most affected by the seating applications, as I still feel that RE has much to contribute in a clinical sense. With the onset of changes in reimbursement it is difficult to know what the future will hold. Most payers want a code that is for an off the shelf product which negates the need for a rehab engineer.
As a rehab engineering groupie or "Wannabe", I greatly advocate for the recognition of rehab engineers and the phenomenal contributions that they will make for people with disabilities now and in the future. I also feel that therapists need to begin advocating for the need for their specialized services. I do not think that "any" therapist can do AAC, computer access, seating, EADLS, etc. I think it takes a dedicated trained specialist. It bothers me that the reimbursement rate for evaluations, fittings, and deliveries is often in question. I look to RESNA to be an advocate in this area. Therapists will designate to third party payers, what their skills are.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I have been involved in leadership roles with RESNA since 1986. RESNA has helped me grow as a team player, leader, and advocate. I have had the opportunity to meet interesting, talented, and dedicated people through my involvement with RESNA.
On the future of RESNA
I think RESNA will remain one of the organizations looked to for the promotion of AT and rehab engineering. I think that government agencies recognize its expertise in areas of AT and the fact that it is interdisciplinary with profit and non-profit members involved in all areas of the organization.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
I would say welcome, get involved, meet some fun and fabulous people, choose your mentors well, and enjoy.