David C. Wilkie, EBS, BFA, ATP
Born: March 2, 1949 - Eau Claire, WI
Entry into the AT field: 1977 as a student in orthotics and prosthetics
How I got into the field
In the 70's I was working in my own business as a jeweler and sculptor when I became allergic to the materials I was working with. One of my friends was working at a vocational school and convinced me to have lunch with him with the idea of taking some classes that would get me out of the jewelry, sculpture field. The vocational school had an orthotics and prosthetics program, and I was immediately attracted to prosthetics - seemed to fit well with my degrees in design and sculpture. After completing the course work in prosthetics I was sent to the VA to complete my clinical work. After completing my orthotic program I was sent to Gillette Children's Hospital to complete my clinical work in orthotics. At Gillette I realized there were many, many needs I thought were not being met very well - especially in the area of what was called Adaptive Equipment. My background in design and sculpture made me naturally gravitate to Adaptive Equipment where I could use my creativity much more freely than I could in orthotics and prosthetics.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
Gillette had done custom molded plastic seating systems as early as 1974, but it was apparent to me that more needed to be done. I plunged headfirst into custom-contoured seating, moving from wood and foam flat-firm backs and firm seats to custom-contoured and custom-molded plastic seating systems.
In 1980, Gillette's AT service delivery was hospital-centered. As I worked with seating patients coming from great distances (4 to 5 hours one-way to get custom seating), I realized we needed to somehow reach out to our patients in greater Minnesota. With the support of the Department Director, I began to develop an assistive technology mobile clinic, and in 1984 we held our first mobile clinic in Southwest Minnesota providing seating and orthotic services. In 2007, the number of clinics had grown to more than 190 a year, provided 2800 services in orthotics, seating and mobility, AugCom, computer access, physical medicine, nursing, rehab engineering consultations and a variety of other AT services.
Why I chose the AT field
I choose to be in the AT field because it gives me an opportunity to use my background in fine arts to create and design products and services that help people with disabilities.
My inspiration and mentor
Many people have inspired me over the years - too many to mention by name. However, the physicians, therapists, nurses and assistive technology staff at Gillette have influenced me tremendously. Patients and their families taught me a great deal about what happens in the real world and what could be done to help their situations day-to-day. Of course, my son, who has cerebral palsy, was a huge influence. I got plenty of ideas for custom devices, equipment modification and orthotics as he grew from a child to a young man - together we figured out some pretty unique ways to deal with his mobility and school issues.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
People with disabilities are generally much more vulnerable than I, and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to use my creativity to assist them. I'm proud of the work I have done with Gillette's Mobile Outreach Clinic, which along with custom seating has been the major focus of my work at Gillette Children's these past 29 years. The Mobile Clinic brings AT services to people with disabilities in rural Minnesota - many of the individuals served are poor, and in areas with very few AT services. It has been a pleasure and a rewarding experience to work with people with disabilities, their families, and with the AT professionals I have met these past 30 years.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
I'm most proud of my early work in seating and mobility and my role in the development of our mobile outreach clinics.
My most memorable failures
I think my biggest failure in the field was my inability to have much influence on funding assistive technology - it is too hard to do service delivery and fight with the Department of Human Services. I chose to concentrate my efforts on service delivery.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
Working in a specialized hospital, as I do, probably has had a unique influence on what I think have been the most significant changes in our field. The advances in surgical techniques and new drugs have had a profound influence on the kinds of assistive technology we provide and how quickly we can provide it. Advances in spinal management and spinal fusions has made seating and bracing less difficult, advances in wheelchair design has had a positive influence on mobility, seating and communication. Availability of commercial components has increased access to a wide range of AT, not only in the areas of seating and mobility, but also communication mounting systems, orthotics, prosthetics etc.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I see a mixed future for rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. Of course the need is going to be there (and will no doubt increase), but funding in this area has always been a problem; unfortunately I don't see it getting much better. Technology will allow us to do more, but there will be more people needing services and I fear the financial resources won't keep pace with the growing need or the costs associated with providing higher quality assistive technology.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
RESNA has played a huge role in the development of my career. In the early years it was "the conference" to go to network with others that were attempting to solve some of the same problems I was trying to solve at Gillette Children's. By attending workshops and lectures I was able to increase my knowledge base in the area of AT. Presenting at the conference always made me think about what I was doing and forced me to do the research to ensure I was doing the "right thing." Of course, along the way I made a lot of great RESNA friends with whom I continue to network to this day.
On the future of RESNA
RESNA has to travel a difficult road in the future. RESNA has a core membership that doesn't seem to increase much year to year and the members, like me, are aging. RESNA will have to attract new young members to take our places. RESNA's conference, while being an excellent conference, isn't the only game in town. We will have to make the conference more attractive to attendees so we can continue to use it as a revenue source - all of this at a time when it is getting more and more difficult for individuals to get their organizations to cover the cost of a conference. The credential will become more and more important. Not only as a way for members to show competence in assistive technology, but also as a major revenue stream to help RESNA continue to be "THE" assistive technology organization.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
I would tell anyone that was entering the field of assistive technology to become a RESNA member ASAP and to attend the conference. I'd encourage them to network with others, join a few SIGs and get involved.