Albert Cook, PhD
Born: June 24, 1943 - Denver, CO
Entry into the AT field: 1974
How I got into the field
I started out in electrical engineering, but found straight engineering to be dry and lacking people interaction. I found out about biomedical engineering and fell in love with neuroscience beginning a grad program in 1966. My son was born in 1968 with a severe cognitive disability. This caused me to re-direct my interests form basic science to more applied areas since I wanted to help him and others through the use of technology. At that time the terms assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering had not been coined so we were making it up as we went. After being told by many "professionals" that lots of technology was available for people like my son but seeing none of it in his schools, two colleagues and I decided to start the Assistive Device Center (ADC) at Sacramento State University to provide such technologies. This was in 1977. This gave me a chance to work with real people who had real problems and actually apply engineering to help solve those problems. I was in heaven, and I got to teach about something that I was actually doing clinically at the same time. An added bonus was having the opportunity to do research and development in this new area.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
The major influence was my son, but I also had the support and cooperation of my two colleagues in speech-language pathology and psychology. They taught me a great deal about clinical work, how to deal with clients as real people (engineering students don't learn anything about actual people). It was a great group it ingrained the concept of teamwork and the need for interdisciplinary teams in assistive technology work that has lasted my whole career. The "event" was probably launching the Assistive Device Center, an interdisciplinary project involving teaching, research and clinical service.
Why I chose the AT field
Pretty much as I've covered above-the field really "chose me". I guess the reason I have stayed with it is that I feel a very real connection to people who have disabilities. I believe very strongly in the social model of disability as a human rights issue, and I believe that a major influence on full societal participation by persons with disabilities is appropriate and effective use of AT.
My inspiration and mentor
I have had several mentors. Doug Hobson and Elaine Trefler mentored me in rehabilitation engineering applications (especially seating) and tormented me until I agreed to run for the RESNA Board. Mary Binion taught me a great deal about organizations and kindness and how these two things can work together. Colette Coleman introduced me to the clinical world.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
The areas that are central to my work include AAC, dissemination of information through writing (texts and papers) and the development of educational programs for engineers and others in AT.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
Development of assessment protocols and methods in the late 70's, video tape series for training people in AAC in the 80's that was widely used, and a major textbook in AT in the 90's. My textbook, "Assistive Technology, Principles and Practice" has defined principles of AT and helped a lot of people develop the knowledge for certification under RESNA.
My most memorable failures
The closing of the ADC and the BME grad program at Sacramento State due to financial issues and lack of mainstream clout (volume and impact to the average person) was a major disappointment. Since I started both of these and nurtured them for many years this was a particularly painful experience. I also had, like everyone else, failures to meet the needs of clients effectively. Fortunately, these were in the minority, but I still feel bad about not helping as much as I would have liked to. After the cancellation of the program and center, I moved to another university (in Canada) as a dean and continued development of my interest in and development of rehabilitation more broadly (OT, PT, SLP education and research), rehab science research and my own research and teaching in AAC and robotics. The client failures generally led to many tries to get them right, but some just weren't feasible.
Significant changes in the field since I first entered it
The major change is that it actually has evolved into a field. For many years, the work of AT and rehab engineers was not recognized as fundable, significant and important.
The development of software driven products, mainstream applications that can be adapted to disability needs is a significant advancement. The evolution of principles of application for AT and the focus on outcomes of AT intervention and much greater funding for AT devices and services are all major advances. They have allowed much greater capability and more functional performance of products and devices as well as development of new strategies for AT use. Increases in funding have made AT much more available to the end users.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I served on the Board for 11 years, 6 as president-elect, president and past-president. RESNA was a big part of my life during that period. I was able to participate in the development of the credentialing program, educational programs (such as the Fundamentals course) and tried to keep the ship afloat.
RESNA has been important in my career mostly through contacts with others working in AT and sharing of knowledge. Active participation also gave me exposure that helped in other ways-such as the development of contacts and collaborative projects.
On the future of RESNA
Unless RESNA establishes itself as the "between conference" place for high quality research, development information and professional development, I don't think it has a real future. There are too many competing conferences with better attendance and more effective marketing.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
Welcome, take us to the next stage! It's a great way to combine an interest in the real problems of people with an interest in technology and its application.