Elaine Trefler, MEd, OTR, ATP, FAOTA
Born: May 16, 1944 - Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Entry into the AT field: 1968
How I got into the field
I was a physical and occupational therapist working at the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre (OCCC), now known as the Bloorview Kids Rehab Centre. There was an opportunity to work with children with upper extremity amputations and children who were part of the Thalidomide population. In the capacity of an occupational therapist on this team, I worked with Colin McLauren, Bill Sauter, and Dr. John Hall. Over time I went to Northwestern University in Chicago for special certification and began my career in technology as it related to children with disabilities.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
I was fortunate to work with pioneers in the field but especially Colin McLauren, Bill Sauter, Doug Hobson, and Jim Foort.
Why I chose the AT field
I felt that the application of technology was more concrete and in many cases more effective than the techniques I had available as an Occupational Therapist.
My inspiration and mentor
I have worked alongside many pioneers in the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. Colin allowed me to spend time reorganizing the technology library at OCCC and from that activity I understood the scope of the field and its history. He also challenged me to think outside the box of traditional occupational therapy. Bill Sauter took time to explain what he was doing and why when he designed and fit prostheses. His demand for excellence and warm relationships with his clients provided a model. Doug Hobson gave me the opportunity to move to Winnipeg and begin the work we did together both there and in Memphis on seating and mobility for children. He constantly challenged me to move beyond my level of comfort and to speak honestly about what I saw.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
The field has provided me with a career that enabled me to make a contribution. I was involved in designing, fitting and evaluating seating and mobility technology for children with physical disabilities. It was at a time when children were fit as small adults. There was little available in technology that met the needs of children, either functionally or aesthetically. We pioneered both technical systems and service delivery processes that you can still see today. And, we did it at a time when there was little funding for the technology or services we provided. I have also been involved in the education of therapists, engineers and consumers for many years. I find it amazing that there seems to be more professionals every year who need entry level training in assistive technology.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
Recently I was at a flea market in Stuart, Florida where I am now fortunate enough to spend winters. There was a woman driving a powered wheelchair using seating technology I helped design. On the back of her chair was a tote bag from a recent International Seating Symposium (ISS), a meeting that I have helped run for over twenty years. It felt great. It was as if my contribution had hit the mainstream of life.
Continuing the development of the ISS and organizing it with my colleagues in years it is in the US. Also, my contribution to the design and development of technology for children with cerebral palsy. Finally, I was involved in the development of RESNA and served on committees and as a Board member for many years. In the early days of the association, we made sure that not just engineering was discussed but the practical application of engineering technology and systems.
My most memorable failures
90/90/90! That was the mantra of seating for many years. We now know that that principle was in error. We did what we thought best. We watched what we did and thank goodness we made changes over time.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
It is less male, engineering dominated and I am not sure that is all good. There are more people getting technology but I worry about the few innovations that are being developed. There is more research but I am not sure it is always helpful for people with disabilities. There is more involvement from consumers and that is good as long as they do not stifle the design and development that is needed to advance the field.
Instructional technology will enable us to provide education on a worldwide basis. Students who cannot attend a university can still participate in advancing their skill level. Certification has come a long way in enabling consumers and funding agencies to know where qualified professionals work. There is still much to be done especially at an advanced level.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
Personally I am concerned that the funding sources are directing the field of practice. Innovation seems to be sleeping while we recommend what can be funded as opposed to what is best. We need to get beyond this stage or people with disabilities will be getting only what they can buy at Sears and even Sears is in trouble.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
RESNA provided me with an opportunity to develop leadership skills and experience a career with colleagues of like passion. It has been a wonderful, challenging ride.
On the future of RESNA
I am concerned about the future of RESNA. I feel it needs a rebirth to meet the needs of professionals in the field. Its direction has become diluted. The passion just isn't there in some of the venues. Leadership needs to get the passion back and maybe with a totally different focus. Instead of worrying about the competition, they should strive to redesign RESNA so that it remains the leader to whom all others look for guidance. RESNA is still in the mode of providing education to its members. Maybe we should move on and provide leadership and education for others in assistive technology. Maybe we should look at our role as advocates and put more resources into advocacy on behalf of our members, consumers and the field in general. It is a challenging time in its history. Times have always been challenging for RESNA and that is why it is such fun to be a volunteer in the organization.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
Be brave. Create your own job description. Don't forget whom you are really working for. Have some fun.