David L. Jaffe, MS
Born: August 1st - Mt. Sinai Hospital, Chicago
Entry into the AT field: March 1974
How I got into the field and my background
My career in rehabilitation engineering began shortly after I received my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and my graduate degree in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University. I attended a local evening meeting of students and professionals who worked in biomedical engineering in the Chicago area. Everyone introduced themselves and their place of employment. I remarked that I was looking for a job and heard a voice from the back, "I would like to talk to you". The individual was an engineer at the Hines VA Hospital (just west of Chicago) who was planning to move out of the area and was looking for his replacement. I got the job with the Biomedical Engineering Section which was responsible for maintaining all the medical equipment in the facility, including equipment associated with the four large spinal cord injury wards. I got familiar with powered wheelchairs, early Prentke-Romich environmental controls, sip&puff pinball machines, air-fluidized beds, rocking beds, and phrenic nerve stimulators.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
While there were a few people who made decisions to hire me at the VA, I can't point to anyone who advised me to get into this field or any specific event or experience that pushed me toward assistive technology. I do recall reading a book as a child about a boy who became blind and used Braille and I had an aunt who used a wheelchair.
My inspiration and mentor
I chose to work at the Rehabilitation Research and Development Center at the VA in Palo Alto (1979) after 5 years at Hines as I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to do creative and interesting things, especially designing devices employing the new (at the time) microprocessor technology.
I'm sorry to say that there really was not a mentor, instructor, or other individual who inspired me.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
To me, the importance of the field stems from its potential to significantly improve a person's life, which in turn benefits society in general since everyone has the potential to contribute.
I have worked on a number of research projects that employ computer technology. This technology is a flexible component in the design of devices that benefit people with disability and the health care professionals who serve them.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
The best feeling an engineer can have is when he or she realizes that his or her talents and skills can truly benefit others. This typically occurs when the engineer sees their newly designed device being used successfully for the first time by someone with a disability. I have had several of these experiences over the years.
Mentoring students and introducing them assistive technology through the Stanford course I teach may be my best contribution - so far.
My most memorable failures
Despite my best efforts, I regret that some of the prototypes I worked on at the VA did not eventually become commercial products and widely available.
Significant changes in the field since I first entered it
Without a doubt, the introduction and advancement of computer technology, especially microcomputer technology, has provided a significant and flexible building block for the design of a wide variety of devices that has improved the lives of people with disabilities.
The most significant advances are those that enable someone with a disability achieve something beyond their expectations. Products and devices employing robotics, stimulation, and computers in devices to restore or improve mobility, manipulation, and communication can make a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities. I have had the good fortune to work on these kinds of projects.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
The future of rehab engineering and assistive technology should be bright as there will always be individuals with disabilities who can benefit from devices and services that would improve their quality of life and increase their independence.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I feel fortunate to have had RESNA around for my entire career. At first RESNA served as a conference where I learned more about the field of rehabilitation engineering as well as a forum for the VA's Rehab R&D Center programs. I got involved with the Computer Applications SIG very early on and was its Chair for the first 5 years. I was the webmaster for the SIG and I remain active, distributing articles of interest to its membership. I have also had three terms on the Board of Directors. With all of my years going to conferences, people that I once knew just as fellow conference attendees, then as colleagues, then as friends, have now become like family and the conferences feel like annual reunions.
On the future of RESNA
I see RESNA identified as the multi-disciplinary professional home for people working in the fields of rehab engineering and assistive technology. This would include OTs, PTs, and others as well as engineers and technologists. I hope RESNA's activities and conferences will continue to attract new members as they enter the field while retaining the skills, experience, wisdom, and participation of "old-timers".
My suggestions for those just entering the field
I would say to learn as much as you can from your colleagues, both within your facility and within RESNA. Make it your goal to contribute to your profession by getting involved with a RESNA committee, submitting papers for presentation, organizing workshops, and participating in SIG activities. You will receive enormous benefits and professional satisfaction.