William A. Peterson, MS
Born: June 29, 1953 - San Diego, CA
Entry into the AT Field: 1982
How I got into the field
I suffered a spinal cord injury and while spending almost four months in an acute rehab facility it became painfully obvious to me that they needed someone with technical expertise to work alongside the clinicians to solve individual technology needs. Before my injury, I worked twelve years in the construction field. Knowing I would not be able to go back to doing the same type of work, I focused my efforts on school and designing technologies that could be used around the home. I received a BS and MS in Biomedical Engineering from Arizona State University and then moved east to Washington, DC where I went to work for the National Rehabilitation Hospital as a rehabilitation engineer.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
As stated above, it was my experiences in acute rehab that drove me to this profession. I was exposed to a very diverse group of people from different walks of life, with different functional abilities, and different yet similar dreams. There were high quads, paras, people with traumatic brain injuries, and stroke survivors. There were three young men (1 quad and 2 paras) who were straight off different Indian reservations (Apache and Navaho) and having to contend with cultural bias along with their disability. And there was this thirteen year old boy, Greg, who unfortunately took his mothers car for a spin, crashed the car, and ended up a high para. I watched all of us struggle as we tried to bring some sort of normalcy to our lives while at the same time trying to make sense of it all. Technology played an important part in all of our lives during those early days in rehab but at the same time it became terribly obvious that there was a tremendous need for new lines of assistive and rehabilitative technologies.
Why I chose the AT field
I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the people I met in rehab, both clinicians and patients, as well as my own.
My inspiration and mentor
I gained most of my inspiration from the people I rehabbed with and clinicians who worked so hard to ensure that each and every one of us regained as much functional capability as possible and thus helping to improve the quality of our lives.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
This is answered above.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
My greatest contributions to the field of rehabilitation engineering came from my position at the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) where I managed the agency's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) program. During that time, the RERC program was recognized by President Bush in his New Freedom Initiative as a "program worthy of expanding". Subsequently the program grew from 15 RERCs to 22 and the program budget increased from $11 million to $20 million per year. I was successful at introducing new RERC topics including Telerehabilitation, Accessible Medical Instrumentation, Accessible Public Transportation, Cognitive Technologies, Recreational Technologies for People with Disabilities, Wheelchair Transportation Safety, Spinal Cord Injury, and Mobile Wireless Technologies. I was also instrumental in the creation of RERC Row at RESNA to showcase the RERC program's research and development activities and to provide a window into tomorrow's technology. The RERC Row has been extremely successful and is always one of the most visited areas at RESNA's annual conference.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
When I first came into this field there were far fewer commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products available to clinicians so it was up to rehab engineers and other rehab professionals to design, tweak, modify, or custom build assistive technology products that would meet the needs of their clients. Today, there are a wealth of products to choose from reducing dramatically the need for customized products. However, matching the right technology with the user is still paramount and may require adjustments or minor modifications to ensure that the product fully meets the needs of the user.
One of the single greatest advancements in the world of assistive technology is the computer chip and it has truly revolutionized the AT industry. Word prediction, voice recognition, speech synthesizers, augmentative communication devices, optical character recognition, environmental control systems, and cognitive prosthetics are but a smattering of how computer chips have revolutionized our field.
One major change I have witnessed that affects everyone in this field is the reduction or even lack of third-party reimbursement for services - especially rehabilitation engineering services.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I believe there will always be a need for rehabilitation engineers even though it remains a challenge to get their services paid for. Same is true for assistive technologies. Baby-boomers are moving into the twilight of their careers and some are already settling into retirement. With such a large bolus of people moving into retirement, the need to keep these people functionally independent and capable of living on their own is paramount. Rehabilitation engineers can and will play an important role in this process for years to come.
On the future of RESNA
As professional organizations go, RESNA is fairly small which makes it difficult to weather bad times. However, RESNA has done just that and I believe its future is bright. I believe that RESNA sometimes struggles with its identity. The American Occupational Therapy Association is geared for OTs. The American Physical Therapy Association is geared for PTs. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is geared to SLPs. RESNA is unique in that it welcomes all allied health professionals including rehabilitation engineers and assistive technology specialists. However, RESNA simply cannot be all things to all people so it will need to continue.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
Ask lots of questions; keep an open mind and learn as much as you can for as long as you can; don't be afraid to try different things; and embrace RESNA and all that it has to offer.