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Fellow Therese Willkomm

Therese Willkomm

Born: May 13, 1960

Therese Willkomm

Entry into the AT Field: 1982

How I got into the field

I started working at an independent living center and found myself building lots of devices for people with disabilities and decided that I wanted to go back to school and get my masters degree in Rehabilitation Engineering and was offered a fabulous opportunity to learn from 4 different rehabilation engineers who were part of RESNA. After receiving my masters I became the first projector coordinator of Breaking New Ground at Purdue University where I work on creating resources on making assistive technology solutions for farmer. In 1985, I attended my very first RESNA conference and was hooked. This is the field I want to always work itn.

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

1982 was the first time I learned about the field of rehabilitation engineering listening to two RESNA Members talking about using everyday items to create solutions for people with disabilities. Then in 1985, I attended my first RESNA Conference and fell in love with this field. As a RESNA Member and resident of the state of Iowa I was honored to work on to major pieces of legislation that were being supported by RESNA - the 1988 Technology Related Assistance Act and the 1990 amendment to the Farm Bill to support assistive technology related activities. I received hundred of grants including NIDRR grants, RSA grants, Dole Foundation Grants and more to support rehab engineering and assistive technology creation and deployment. In 1993 I was offer an amazing opportunity to study at the University of Pittsburgh and was the first PhD graduate in Rehabilitation Technology. 37 years later and I still love this field.

Why I chose the AT field

Because of the magic. You see a problem, then create a solution, then make that solution even better, and then see the smiles on peoples faces when then can accomplish a task that then never could do before receiving the specific solutions

My inspiration and mentor

I have had many RESNA members along the way who have been so inspiring: Kali Malic; Rick Folds; Bruce Backer; Barry Romick; Bill Field; Sam McFarland; Gerry Weisman; Larry Scadden; Cliff Brubaker; Charlie Robinson; Alexander Enders; Roger Smith; Fred Sammons; Peter Axelson; Ed Elingson; Patti Bahr; Dave Wilki; David Law; Leonard Anderson; Dick Jergens and so many more. I was inspired by their passion, joy, commitment, and on going support through out the years.

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

Everyday we see people who experience various disabilities and are unable to complete an essential task at home, in school or the workplace and I believe there are hundred of solutions to overcome these challenges if we just all put our heads together we can solve almost anything and most solutions can be developed immediately.

My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field

Helping to create and write the 1988 Technology Related Assistance Act and being recognized in the Congressional Record for my work on this legislation. And in 1990 I work on the Admendment to the Farm Bill and testified in front of congress to provide assistive tehnology services to farmers with disabilities. In 2016 being recognized by President Obama and being invited to the Whitehouse was a highlight of my career along with writing two assistive technology books and being invited to speak in 48 states and 10 foreign countries. I have invented over 2000 assistive technology solutions and produced thousands of you tube clips on how to create assistive technology solutions in minutes.

My most memorable failures

The dog treat dispenser idea for give service dogs a treat. I failed over 10 times try to solve this over five years. This kept me up a night and finally I came up with a solution that did work.

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

Rasberry pie; Arduinos; Ultra Sonic Sensors; 3D printers; iPADs and hundreds of new fabrication tools and materials are the most significate changes and advances in the field since I first entered. We now are able to quickly create affordable assistive technology solutions in minutes that were never possible back in 1982.

On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology

We will continue to be challenged with limited time and money and therefore will need to keep discovering to ways to address these challenges. In addition the number of individuals with disabilities is projected to rise. We will need to use innovative approach to meet these demands including telemedicine; virtual relality; voice and visual assistants.

My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me

I was first a member and then multiple SIG chair positions and then conducted numerous workshops at RESNA conferences and presented numerous paper. RESNA is the reason I am where I am today. All of my RESNA mentors have guided me and supported me all the way. And my proudest moment with RESNA was when we all came together to work on the most important piece of legislation to ever be passed and that was the 1988 Technology Related Assistance Act that resulted in all 50 states provides assisitive technology services for the last 31 years and now to be the Director of one of these state programs is awesome!!!

On the future of RESNA

RESNA members offer a unique service that no other organization provides and that is through their national and international training and the ATP credential. RESNA stands for quality and depth of services and skills available through it’s interdisaplinary membership. As a result, I believe that RESNA’s world wide presence in the field will continue to grow and RESNA will maintain a strong leadership role.

My suggestions for those just entering the field

Find good mentors to work with. I can not think of a better place than RESNA to find such an amazing diversity of highly qualified members, who would love to be a mentor and to past the torch. I hope you all get that fire in the belly and have that awesome experience of changing lives everyday through the application of assistive technology.