John Leslie, PhD
Born: July 28, 1938 - Wichita, KS
Entry into the AT Field: September 1971
How I got into the field
I was requested to write a proposal to the Kansas Department of Vocational Education to develop technology to employ persons with severe disabilities in "mainstream" business and industry. At this point in time a special education mandate was just being implemented in the state of Kansas. My professional background is in the area of industrial engineering and management, with special emphasis in production/manufacturing, human factors, and project management. I have a secondary background in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in thermodynamics/heat transfer.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
Joseph Traub, the former supervisor of NIDRR's rehabilitation engineering program, primarily influenced my early decisions. The primary events that encouraged me to go into the field were numerous visits with children with cerebral palsy who, after their formative years, were unable to secure meaningful, productive employment.
Why I chose the AT field
While it may seem "corney," I was motivated by a desire to improve the human condition through the application of fundamental industrial engineering principles to ensure persons with disabilities "got a piece of the action". My early engineering experience was in the defense industry, I felt a need to improve life not destroy it.
My inspiration and mentor
Jack Jonas, former CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation of Kansas, was a great influence on my professional life. He had a dream about the promising potential futures of persons with SEVERE disabilities. He and I were able to give quite a few people the tools to achieve these dreams, through employment, independent living, and educational opportunities brought about by assistive technology.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
Assistive technology is vitally important to persons with SEVERE physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Realistically, AT is the only means they have to secure a productive, meaningful lifestyle in American society. It is especially important for infants and children with disabilities. They and their parents must be infused with the hope that AT is THE MEANS to an end of lifelong fulfillment. My major contribution to the field was to inculcate into the minds of professionals and laymen alike the fact that vocational rehabilitation engineering was a legitimate application of technology which could modify work environments to enable persons with disabilities to "carry their own weight." Unfortunately, many of the hardware, worksite accommodation applications have been pushed aside in favor of "policy studies." While systems studies are beneficial, "hammer and nail" technology puts people to work.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
The establishment of vocational rehabilitation engineering as a legitimate element of the profession, the introduction of vocational assistive technology to the countries of Egypt and India, assisting in the creation of Center Industries Corporation, a model for the productive employment of persons with severe disabilities and with the assistance of close friends and colleagues, developing the first definition of the field of rehabilitation engineering in the language of the Reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act. Finally, serving as a charter member on the RESNA Professional Standards Board which developed the initial certification testing process. Important to my contributions has been my active political advocacy in the field through a long-term association with Senator Robert Dole and Senator Nancy Kasselbaum. On many occasions, there was much "behind the scene" maneuvering to ensure that rehabilitation engineering, especially NIDRR, received its rightful share of political and financial support during times when many political elements were pushing for its demise.
My most memorable failures
My greatest failure was the inability to secure NIDRR funding for the continuation of the Wichita RERC. In my humble opinion, this was the end of an era in which "nuts and bolts" rehabilitation engineering research/service delivery concepts were being applied to the solution of meaningful vocational problems in white and blue collar work environments. An additional disappointment has been the inability to reestablish this concept through cooperative NIDRR proposals involving colleagues who have a similar dedication.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
The primary change lies in the RESNA certification process. It has given a legitimacy to the field which has been recognized by governmental agencies and third party payers. The second change is the SLOW recognition that persons with SEVERE disabilities can be productive members of society. The great improvement in mobility devices (wheelchairs and scooters), both in price and function, is a source of amazement to me. The final thing that impresses me is the large fraternity of diverse persons in the field. During my "infant" years in the profession, we could barely fill one room with friends and colleagues who "had the faith."
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
Leaders in the profession MUST, utilizing quantitative parameters, proclaim, in clear and unmistakable terms the layman can understand, the cost-effectiveness of what we do. AT is generally still TOO expensive and the technology is POORLY transferred to consumers who, for the most part, cannot afford it. If this task is not effectively carried out we shall still struggle for adequate funding and public recognition.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I was a charter member of RESNA. I was a "behind the scenes" contributor to its establishment. I served on the Board and on several committees in the areas of public policy, service delivery, and professional standards development. I co-chaired the national conference held in Kansas City, MO in 1991. I chaired a major conference on service delivery conducted in Arkansas in the late 80's. I was the "loyal opposition" on matters on which I had strong beliefs, but when the decision was made, I was always a "team player."
On the future of RESNA
RESNA's future lies in its ability to ALWAYS focus on its PRIMARY reason for existence, "to enable ALL persons with disabilities to attain a level of achievement consistent with their greatest aspirations through the intervention of assistive technology in any and all its forms." If RESNA can keep this element of faith with the persons it is dedicated to serve, it will "do good."
My suggestions for those just entering the field
To those entering the field I would submit, NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF THE FACT THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE SERVING IS A HUMAN BEING, NOT A GADGET, AN EQUATION OR A PAGE FROM A TEXTBOOK. THEY ARE A PERSON LOOKING TO YOU FOR A SOLUTION TO A PROBLEM WHICH IS LIMITING SOME CRITICAL ELEMENT OF THEIR LIFE. YOU HAVE A DUTY AND AN OBLIGATION TO GIVE THEM YOUR "BEST SHOT."