Alexandra Enders, BS, OTR
Born: August 16, 1946 - Milwaukee, WI
Entry into the AT field: 1976
How I got into the field
I worked at the first Center for Independent Living in the country, in Berkeley, filling in as the Independent Living Skills coordinator for a friend who was going on maternity leave. Technology was a large part of the job. While I was there I accompanied Judy Heumann to a rehab engineering meeting in Pomona, sponsored by the VA and RSA under the aegis of the California Department of Rehabilitation. Judy brought me as her attendant, as she often did when she wanted to get more CIL folks into a meeting. I did her attendant work, but she also had me participate as if I had been invited in my own right. I was signed in as an OT, and it turned out I was the only OT at the meeting, which saved Reswick, when his wife Trudy, an OT, asked about OTs at the meeting, there was at least me. No one seemed to remember that I was there as Judy's attendant. It was my first trip as her attendant. She had to travel in an manual wheelchair because they did not have a lift equipped van to pick her up. When we got to the "accessible" room, and she asked the bellman at the Kellog Center "where is the accessible bathroom" (since the one in our room sure was not) he said "across the street, in the main conference center". While at the meeting, Judy got a commitment from the Veterans Administration Prosthetics Center to operate an equipment evaluation program at the Berkeley CIL. Even though my background was as a psych OT, I was very interested in the technology at CIL, and Judy figured I should be the project director for the VA sponsored equipment evaluation project. So much for my 6 months temporary position filling in as CIL's ILS coordinator!
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
My experience in Berkeley showed me how essential technology was to community participation. All my co-workers at CIL were great folks with disabilities who were able to be out and about in the world because of the right combination of personal spirit, politics, and technology.
Why I chose the AT field
Technology is so concrete. It either works or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, you just keep working at it until it does. And I like toys.
My inspiration and mentor
Judy Heumann was my primary inspiration and mentor. She has been a good friend, a mentor, a confidant and showed me how far there still is to go in developing the tools, the delivery and payment systems which will get appropriate technology into the lives of people with disabilities everywhere. She showed me how important public policy is for getting things done and how disability issues need to be incorporated into mainstream policies so disability is a regular integrated element, not a special add-on. She also showed me the importance of coalition development, of reciprocity, and of seeing the big picture even when working on small details.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
I am not sure I have ever just worked in assistive technology. I have always included technology and tools into my work. I have always been practical, knowing that at the most basic level, people were asking; "What do I need? How/where do I get it? And how do I pay for it?" While I have focused on policy in a broad range of issues from telecommunications to transportation, I have also continued to collect Do-It-Yourself patterns and plans. I think my retirement project will be to get all the DIY material collected over a career in a web based system for sharing DIY equipment ideas.
Currently, I am involved in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology with an emphasis on demographics and mapping. For years I talked about the relationship of tools-skills-people in a personal support system. These are elements closest to the individual, a "micro-environment." Using GIS, I can actively work with the spatial nature of the person-environment interaction, with the larger "macro" environment. The data used in GIS is essential for formulating public policy which looks beyond just individual characteristics and interventions, to the interaction between person and environment.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
The move from research to practice. Recognition in policy and practice of the importance of technology supports to the everyday lives of people with disabilities. Some of the largest successes, though they took a lot of work, seemed like "duh" moments. Why did this have to take so long? I guess because I was always accepted as at least a lurker at the edge of the independent living/disability rights movement, I could see how slow the changes were, and how much more was needed - while at the same time marveling at the progress made in such a short time frame (compared to other technological change and adoption rates).
Working on the first Tech Act legislation, so systems change and services could be fostered at the state and local level, and there could be increased "market pull" for getting technology moved out of the research labs and into people's lives. Writing three editions of the "Technology for Independent Living Sourcebook", then seeing a huge range of technology literature emerge. Teaching workshops on technology funding, until they started becoming part of every state's ongoing activities.
My most memorable failures
Failure: inability to get the technology field to act together under a collaborating umbrella. It was painful to watch specific technology groups move away. For example, the driver/vehicle folks, the augmentative communication folks, etc, etc. And it was really painful when splinter groups started fighting among themselves in what might have been a more unified field, with a unified research agenda, and a common voice.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
Attitudes toward technology. Recognition of its importance in the lives of people with disabilities. Computer technologies and the advances they have allowed. Information exchange enabled by online technologies. At heart I have always been an "information sharer" and I cannot imagine life without the Internet.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I think technology is here to stay. This was not always true, especially in the pre Tech Act days. There was always the danger that technology would be the first thing to be cut, since it was often viewed as a luxury add-on, and not recognized for its essential value in independent living and community participation.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I was the first woman to be a president of RESNA. I think I have chaired and/or been active on most of the committees. I feel like RESNA and I grew up professionally together. After being a founding member in 1979, for 20 of the next 24 years I was either on the Board or the Executive Committee. I have also been Chair, Quality Assurance Committee; Chair, Society and Government Affairs Committee; Information/Networking Special Interest Group; Chair Cognitive Disabilities and Technologies Special Interest Group; Assistive Technology journal, Book Review Editor. One of the most fun and visible things I did was writing a DIY column in the RESNA newsletter for years, sharing grassroots patterns, plans, and ideas.
On the future of RESNA
RESNA seems to be the place where the technology experts, leaders, and elite can affiliate - a prestigious society of leaders!
My suggestions for those just entering the field
Think big, but remember the details. And if you are not regularly working with the people who are actually using the technology, make sure you cultivate relationships with them, so you can learn how the equipment is actually working, where improvement is needed, and what the real world looks like in all terrains, in all weather, and in all situations from the airplane to the restaurant and the restroom.