Fellow Peter Axelson
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Fellow Peter Axelson

Peter Axelson

Born: 1956 - Bryan, TX

Peter Axelson

Entry into the AT Field: 1978

How I got into the field

I sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1975 climbing accident while in the Air Force Academy. I continued my education at Stanford University, where I began applying engineering and design principles to overcome daily living hurdles faced by people with disabilities. I received a BS in Mechanical Engineering (ME) and Product Design in 1979 and an MSME in Smart Product Design in 1982 from Stanford University. In 1981, I started Beneficial Designs when I realized people could benefit from the sit-ski I had created for myself.

Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field

My rock climbing accident obviously redirected my life. Had I continued in my career, I would have most likely perished in one of the B-1 test flights. Most of the early flights flew into the ground at high speeds trying to follow the terrain. I had an avid desire for participating in outdoor activities having been an ice hockey player, freestyle skier, and mountaineer. I saw that there was a lack of activities for outdoor recreation for people using wheelchairs.

My first design project was the ARROYA sit-ski. My advisor, Larry Leifer, entered my project into the ICRE (pre RESNA) student design competition in 1979. Attending this conference opened my eyes to the fact that there was a home for me to do much of the work I was interested in doing. Key people I remember meeting at this early conference were Colin McLaurin, Doug Hobson, Jim Reswick and Dudley Childress.

Why I chose the AT field

My motivation is the mission statement of our company. We work towards universal access through research, design, and education. We believe all individuals should have access to the physical, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of life. We seek to enhance the quality of life for people of all abilities, and work to achieve this aim by developing and marketing technology for daily living, vocational, and leisure activities.

My inspiration and mentor

Doug Hobson has always continued to encourage and support me with ways in which we can change the face of rehabilitation through standards development.

Dudley Childress always set an example of how to work in a steady but consistent way, knowing there are always new technologies to be developed and new things to be done.

Colin McLaurin brought me in to teach and mentor rehab engineering students at UVA. We were friends as well as coworkers. We spent one day cementing rocks to the foundation of his house on the Appalachain Trail. He did not think twice about how I would actively participate in this difficult task.

Tomas Stripling has been always been an advocate recommending Beneficial Designs to receive financial support for the standards work we do. There have been years when there were limited funds available, but he understands the implications of this work and the impact on the industry.

My co-workers set up quality control systems needed to do the standards work that we have been blessed to do at Beneficial Designs. My daughter Ria is a joy in my life. She gives me reasons to work less and remember that my impact on other people is more important than the things I "accomplish."

Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work

As the Director of R&D of Beneficial Designs, Inc., we work towards universal access through research, design, and education. Our accomplishments include developing the Arroya Sit-Ski and the first chairlift-compatible mono-ski with a shock absorber and molded seating, working to establish wheelchair testing and other AT standards, developing seating accessories for wheelchairs, and creating Assessment Processes for trails, sidewalks and other outdoor recreation environments that improve access to the world for people of all abilities.

My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field

Our company started with developing recreation technologies for persons with disabilities and have developed skis, bikes, wave skis, off-road wheelchairs, seating for aircraft, ATVs, kayaks, canoes, amusement rides, control modifications for cars with manual transmissions, aircraft, etc. Making wheelchairs more comfortable by designing the Pax Back, the Hip Grip, Guppy Pads and flexible, ergonomic hand rims.

Our company also created design guidelines and assessment processes for Federal Highways for sidewalks and shared-use paths. The Access Board has built from this work to develop draft guidelines for ADAAG as well. We have been blessed to create these contributions for our society. These successes encourage us to continue forward with our work.

Another part of my life that most folks do not know about is my life on the snow. I have medaled 7 times in 3 world championships. I am a level III PSIA certified Adaptive Ski Instructor and assist as a Senior Examiner to teach and certify Adaptive Ski Instructors. I am the first mono-skier to become a Level III PSIA Alpine Ski Instructor teaching skiers without disabilities. I am blessed to be able to teach and encourage adaptive ski instructors from all over the world.

Some of our most comprehensive work is the development of the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP), the High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process (HETAP), and the Public Rights-of-Way Assessment Process (PROWAP) to systematically measure outdoor environments for access.

My most memorable failures

It was not uncommon for adaptive equipment to not work. I had at least one mono ski that collapsed into a pile of aluminum tubing and aircraft cable. I had hand controls break and cease to function. I had professors comment that my work seemed "off mark." My first sit-ski was reviewed by the chairman of the product design program (not Larry Leifer) who commented, "who in a wheelchair is going to want to go skiing?" I learned from each failure what did not work and I learned from each negative comment that people needed to be educated. These difficult challenges motivated me to work harder to meet my goals.

Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it

There have been significant advances in the application of microprocessor technology and manufacturing technology. While there is the potential to provide great assistive technology that was unavailable before, the funding to get this technology to the people who need it is becoming more and more difficult to obtain. This has resulted in a decrease of the availability of assistive technologies that will enable people with disabilities to participate in daily living, work, and leisure activities. There has also been a decrease in support for technologies that will prevent further medical complications. This, despite the fact that provision of appropriate technologies will often prevent further costly medical complications. Despite these challenges, many professionals continue creating the technologies that people need. Computers and email have made it easier to do standards work but have increased the workload as well.

On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology

I see that universal design is becoming more and more a part of mainstream technologies resulting in less need for adaptive technologies. I see a tremendous need for the recognition of persons with rehabilitation technology skills to be adequately reimbursed to meet the clinical needs of persons with disabilities. This is needed to reduce the progression of limitations, to maintain quality of life and to maintain function in all actives of life.

My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me

I have been the Chair of the Technical Guidelines Committee for a long time. With other RESNA members, I initiated work to connect wheelchair performance with funding for wheelchairs and wrote a wheelchair selection guide, with support from the PVA. I have co-authored books on the training and use of manual and powered wheelchairs and have helped to start numerous other efforts to develop guidelines for Assistive Technologies including wheelchair seating, wheelchair transportation, wheelchair golf, inclusive fitness equipment and air travel. In addition, I also developed a set of universal design criteria for standards addressing cognitive accessibility.

RESNA has given me my identity as a Rehab Engineer and provided a mechanism to lead standards development. I have established the connections to grow as a professional, as a grant awardee, grant reviewer, and writer and reviewer of peer reviewed articles. RESNA also gave me one night every year to cut loose on dance night!

On the future of RESNA

RESNA should focus on the needs of clinical rehab technologists to try and advocate for their reimbursement. RESNA is of course a great place to share rehabilitation engineering research and development activities. RESNA should also expand its role as a standards organization to the rehab community. This could develop into a major cost center for RESNA.

My suggestions for those just entering the field

Grab a hold of what you have been given the talent to do and put your heart into the people that you work with and serve. You will learn and grow, you will be provided opportunities to participate and collaborate.