Rory A. Cooper, PhD
Born: November 9, 1959 - Alhambra, CA
Entry into the AT field: 1981
How I got into the field
I received a spinal cord injury, and began designing better wheelchairs for my personal use. I have a PhD in engineering and post-doctoral training in rehabilitation engineering.
Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field
Receiving a spinal cord injury has been the most important event in my decision to enter the field.
Why I chose the AT field
Working in the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology allows me to help other people with disabilities and to contribute in a positive way to society. There are also a large number of interesting and challenging problems to work on.
My inspiration and mentor
There have been several people over the course of my involvement with assistive technology that have influenced me. Peg Giannini, MD and Cliff Brubaker, PhD have had an important influence on my career. However, my students, my colleagues, and the people with disabilities with whom I work and have worked have also been critical.
Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work
It is a field where engineers can have a direct and lasting impact on enhancing quality of life for people with disabilities. My work has primarily been in the areas of wheelchair research and development and the education of rehabilitation engineers. These areas are core to the fields of assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering.
My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
I can think of two things I consider successes. One, the students who have excelled in their education and those (sometimes the same ones) that have progressed in the field making important professional contributions. Secondly, I have been fortunate enough to be a member of a few R&D teams that have had some technical and clinical successes. Of those technical/clinical successes, the recent clinical practice guidelines for upper limb preservation for SCI represents an affirmation of 20 years of accumulated work.
The wheelchair standards, their application, and their impact on access to quality wheelchairs is also very rewarding. We have also worked on a few devices such as the PAPAW that have been interesting and helpful. I am unsure that anyone can claim full credit for a significant contribution. However, if someone were to try and characterize my greatest contributions, they would probably highlight my work on building research capacity in rehabilitation engineering and my contributions to the improvement of wheelchairs.
My most memorable failures
Everyone in research and education experiences failure. I think the two most difficult things I have dealt with professionally are people who have tremendous potential but who do not live up to it and when I have been unable to convince policy makers or funding sources of the negative impact of their decisions. The way I have dealt with set-backs is through perseverance. By thinking of the people we have and can help, provides us strength for the challenging times.
Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
The most significant change is that the field has become more professional. There is more formal education, continuing education, and translation of research into practice. People communicate more as a group through journals, websites, e-mail, and meetings.
There are number of things that have had an important impact. Advances in computing power, ubiquitous use of microcontrollers, availability of advanced materials, rapid prototyping, computer simulations, clinical practice guidelines have all impacted our work. These have resulted in better electric powered wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs, computer access systems, augmentative communication systems and a host of other devices. Through advances in technology, we can serve more people and all people better.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology
I believe that devices will continue to get smarter and the human-machine interfaces will improve. The future will be based upon advances in other fields and how they are wisely applied to rehabilitation engineering. I predict that Participatory Action Design will be the dominant means of developing new designs in the future.
My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me
I have held numerous positions within RESNA. I have served as Chairs of committees, Board Member, Executive Committee member, Treasurer, President-Elect, President, and soon to be Past-President. I have also served on such ad hoc committees as search committees for two executive directors. My philosophy has always been to try and use my abilities and influence to help RESNA, rather then to use RESNA to advance my career. However, I have learned a lot from the staff and volunteer leadership of RESNA over the years.
On the future of RESNA
RESNA is a vibrant and viable organization. It is on the verge of making some impressive advances if the leadership makes the correct decisions and dedicates their time and energies to promote and sustain the planned course of action.
My suggestions for those just entering the field
These are the best of times and the worst of times. There are a lot of opportunities, but at the same time there are the challenges with research funding and reimbursement for services. Rehabilitation engineers still do not have the clinical credibility they deserve. However, all of these things are capable of changing and RESNA needs to work on them.