Lawrence A. Scadden, PhD
Born: March 16, 1939 - Los Angeles, CA
Entry into the AT field: September 3, 1968
How I got into the field
During my work on a Master's degree in psychology, I became interested in the study of sensory perception. Being blind myself, I realized that the scientific literature on the human senses was heavy on research related to vision, but comparatively little research had been conducted regarding the senses of touch and hearing, the senses I used in all aspects of my life. My academic and career goals became focused on contributing to such research. A psychology professor at the University of the Pacific where I received my Master's degree told me about research that was just beginning in San Francisco related to an attempt to develop a "Tactile Vision Substitution System." I telephoned the scientists who were collaborating on this research, Paul Bach-y-Rita and Carter Collins, and volunteered to help in any way that I could. When the first prototype equipment was fabricated, I was invited to join the project staff as a research psychologist to direct its evaluation with blind subjects. The invitation also included entry into the Ph.D. program in visual sciences within the University of the Pacific's Graduate School of Medical Sciences located in the Pacific Medical Center where the research was being conducted, specifically in the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. Over the subsequent years, I became proficient in evaluating emerging technologies developed for use by blind and deaf individuals.
In 1975, I joined Drs. Bach-y-Rita and Collins in forming a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute related to blindness and low vision, a center I directed for most of its first five years of operation. During those years, I conducted national evaluations of some important technology that soon became significant in the lives of thousands of blind people: speech synthesis used as computer displays and optical character recognition reading machines. Those research activities led to an invitation to serve on a panel convened to advise the Science and Technology Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives related to the future of technological research for people with disabilities. Our recommendations resulted in the passage of legislation in 1978 that created the agency now known as the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) where I was named as the first Deputy Director.
With a change of national administrations in 1981, I returned to the private sector and joined the research staff of the Electronic Industries Foundation. My primary efforts there related to developing guidelines and policies related to the inclusion of features in consumer electronics and information technology that would render them accessible by people with disabilities.
In 1992, I was recruited by the National Science Foundation to establish a program dedicated to the promotion of science and math education and career development for people with disabilities. That program, now called Research in Disability and Education, continues to function.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
The major event that produced my interest in needs of people who are blind came when I was five years old and was blinded in a home accident. As a teenager, I became a licensed ham radio operator and became convinced that electronics could be a source of important tools for blind people, especially for reading and for independent travel. Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita is undoubtedly the person who is most responsible for getting me into the field of assistive technology because he invited me to join his staff and to evaluate prototype equipment designed for blind people.
Why I chose the AT field
My primary motivation was to help develop useful tools that I could use to increase my own independence. Secondly, I welcomed the opportunity to be near the cutting edge of emerging technology.
My inspiration and mentor
Dr. Emerson Foulke, a research psychologist at the University of Louisville, who also was blind, was my role model early in my first graduate studies. I met him soon after beginning my career at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute, and he became a close friend, colleague, and continued to be my mentor until his death.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
My work in the assistive technology field took two significantly different paths: first, product evaluation, and, second, efforts to affect national policies regarding accessible product design and incorporation of references to assistive technology within federal legislation affecting people with disabilities. Both paths are central to the development and proliferation of assistive technology.
My memorable successes
In the area of product evaluation, I will always feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to design and conduct the first national evaluations of speech synthesis as a computer output display for blind people and later the evaluation of the first model of the Kurzweil reading machine. Related to national policy, I am pleased that I had the opportunity to affect the adoption of Section 508 in 1986 and later to chair the national task force convened to draft recommended standards for its implementation after it was revised in 1998.
My most memorable failures
Without question, my greatest disappointment relates to my inability to convince consumer electronics manufacturers to adopt design principles that would make their products usable by people with disabilities. This failure came even after requests by the consumer electronics manufacturing association to provide such guidelines which appeared in four successive issues of its monthly newsletter. The only way I could deal with this failure was to move on to new opportunities and challenges.
Significant changes in the field since I first entered it
The most important changes that I have experienced relates to the technology itself. With computer technology doubling in speed and power every 12 to 18 months, we have seen tremendous improvements in the means of providing people with disabilities access to information, the ability to speak, and control over one's environments. Efforts to improve the availability of devices for people with disabilities, as through the state Tech Act programs, also are encouraging.
Most important advances in the field
As stated above, the proliferation of computer technology over the past 35 years has been marvelous for people with disabilities. Both my work in product evaluation and in efforts to affect national policies related to technological aids for people with disabilities reflected these advances.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I envision continued advances in technological capability of emerging technology resulting in increased abilities for people with physical and sensory disabilities. The use of implantable nanotechnologies will be exciting to follow.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I am proud to have been one of the founding members of RESNA and having had the opportunity to serve on its Board of Directors for several terms. RESNA's biggest impact on my career relates to providing me collegial relationships with engineers and scientists who work with other disabilities than those close to my original research endeavors. As my career moved into policy issues, all efforts required collaboration of people from many disciplines and disability categories. RESNA provided those essential relationships.
On the future of RESNA
RESNA should continue to provide cross-disciplinary pollination of ideas and collaborative efforts to improve the design and distribution of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology solutions to problems faced by people with disabilities.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
I would encourage all young people just entering the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology to recognize that people with disabilities will always be the greatest help in determining what is needed by them. Too often people project their own thoughts as to what it would be like to have a particular disability and thus what would be needed to address life problems. The adaptation of human beings is often startling, and thus experience of those with a disability must be the primary source of information regarding what is needed by those with that disability.