In his dark blue suit and gray sneakers, Rory Cooper, associate professor of rehabilitation science and technology, deftly maneuvers his own wheelchair through the crowd. This day marks the official opening of the Human Engineering Research (HER) Laboratories, a major facility for the design and testing of wheelchairs and other assistive technologies. Posing for the cameras, Cooper cuts the ribbon, and proceeds to work the crowd as expertly as he navigated through it.
"This is where we put wheelchairs through destructive testing to see how durable they are," says Cooper, a trim, bearded man in his mid-thirties. He activates a machine, and two thick steel rollers supporting a wheelchair whirl to life. The centimeter-high bumps along each of the rollers, he explains, simulate door thresholds, bumps, and other small obstacles. The chair atop the machine wobbles and sways wildly as the rollers pick up speed.
Nearby sits an elevated treadmill used to test the endurance of motorized wheelchairs by running them to exhaustion. Next to the treadmill is another machine that tirelessly hauls wheelchairs aloft and drops them from various heights, ranging from the six to eight inches of the typical curb to more than a foot. "We'll drop wheelchairs up to 7,000 times," Cooper says. "This simulates three to five years of active use."
Cooper and his associates at the HER Labs, a joint enterprise of Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitation Science (SHRS) and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Pittsburgh, put wheelchairs through this gauntlet to provide guidance for future generations of wheelchairs. In other research, the team conducts detailed studies of how wheelchairs and their occupants interact, and is developing the hardware and software for new technologies that will help meet the needs of individuals with severe disabilities.
The creation of the HER Labs represents SHRS dean Clifford Brubaker's commitment to molding the school into a center for state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary research. When Brubaker took over as dean in 1991, SHRS was the School of Health Related Professions, long recognized as a first-rate place for training professionals in such fields as physical therapy, nutrition, and health records administration. Today, the school is also evolving into a major force for advancing knowledge in science and technology. The Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, which houses the HER Labs, is the first department at any university to take a critical look at the science behind rehabilitation efforts. (The department works closely with bioengineering's new rehabilitation engineering program.) By way of illustrating how important this work is, department chair Charles Robinson points out that last year he had two people working under him. Now he has 40.
For much of the twentieth century, the relentless forward march of technology left the wheelchair behind . Until about 1970, design hadn't advanced much beyond the basic concept of taking a chair and adding wheels. Baby boomers might remember the television series "Ironside," in which Raymond Burr tracked down crooks in a wheelchair that looked heavy enough to crush a Volkswagen.
A lot has changed since then. Technical advances, the growth of wheelchair sports, and an influx of paralyzed and amputee Vietnam veterans who wanted to be as mobile and active as possible fueled a rapid evolution in wheelchair design. Wheelchairs became lighter and faster. A wheelchair racer broke the four-minute mile in 1985, and today's top-of-the-line racing wheelchairs weigh as little as 10 pounds.
Rory Cooper has played a part in that evolution. In 1980 a near-fatal traffic accident paralyzed Cooper, just home from the Army. His discouraging efforts to exercise in an 80-pound wheelchair inspired him to experiment with building chairs of his own.
As an undergraduate engineering student, Cooper served as a design consultant to a California wheelchair manufacturer and then started his own company, which built equipment for wheelchair athletes. Not long after earning his doctorate, he founded the Rehabilitation Engineering Program at California State University at Sacramento. He came to Pitt in early 1994 to found the HER Labs.
Then there are Cooper's accomplishments as a wheelchair athlete. Over the past 12 years he has amassed well over a hundred medals at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Despite increasingly stiff competition and, athletically speaking, his relatively advanced age of 34, Cooper managed to win five gold medals at last year's games. In 1988 Cooper earned a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Afterwards he started a scientific training program for wheelchair athletes in the United States that paid off at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, where the American Paralympic team won more medals than any other country. It's tempting to portray Rory Cooper's story as a heroic struggle against adversity, a triumph in the face of tragedy„a promising subject for a made-for-TV movie. (In fact, he did serve as an advisor for an episode of the television series "Northern Exposure" about wheelchair racing that featured a character loosely based on Cooper.)
But such an account really doesn't do Cooper justice. If fate hadn't placed him in a wheelchair, Cooper would almost certainly still be the unstoppable force he is today, though perhaps in a different field. As a wheelchair user, however, Cooper is motivated not just by intellectual challenge and career goals. He knows firsthand the obstacles and difficulties confronted by wheelchair users, and he works hard to make others understand them as well.
Cooper's advocacy efforts have taken him to the White House to discuss disability issues with then-Vice President Dan Quayle. In Pittsburgh, he provided advice on accessibility improvements for downtown's Heinz Hall and helped formulate a University policy aimed at ensuring that Pitt-sponsored conferences and events take place at wheelchair-accessible facilities. He demonstrated that University hospitals could save money by purchasing more expensive wheelchairs instead of basic $150- $200 models. The pricier wheelchairs last longer, need less maintenance, and provide better postural support.
Last fall, Cooper took Pitt Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor on a wheelchair tour of campus. "He's very supportive of issues of people with disabilities," Cooper says, "and he's actually quite good in a wheelchair."
Cooper and O'Connor started at the Cathedral, wheeled over to the student union, negotiated the narrow aisles of the Book Center, went across busy Fifth Avenue and weaved through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center complex, a byzantine network of corridors, elevators, and skywalks. In Scaife Hall, home of Pitt's medical school, Cooper demonstrated to the Chancellor how simple additions like tables and vertically sliding chalkboards can make things easier for wheelchair-using students and teachers.
The most exciting part of the journey came outside Scaife Hall, across from Pitt Stadium, where Terrace Street descends sharply and makes a tight bend to become DeSoto Street. "It's really difficult," Cooper recalls. To someone unaccustomed to navigating in a wheelchair, the steep topography might be a bit terrifying.
Cooper notes that sidewalk curb cuts, designed to ease the passage of wheelchair riders from the sidewalk to the street, actually added to the difficulty here. "When you have hills," he explains, "the curb cuts add compound angles and make it harder to control the chair. You don't have equal weight on rear wheels."
The recent Americans with disabilities Act (ADA) represented an important advance for wheelchair users, but Cooper points out that simply following the ADA guidelines is not always wnough. As the angled curb cuts on Terrace Street show, every location has different characteristics and therefore poses different challenges.
Through his consciousness-raising efforts, Cooper seeks to make the world more hospitable to wheelchair users, but his main work involves making wheelchairs and their users better able to tackle the world as it is.
Sixty to 80 percent of wheelchair users eventually develop a secondary disability due to prolonged wheelchair use. Maneuvering a wheelchair requires repeated momvements that put strain on the wrist, shoulders, and elbows. This often leads to repetitive strain injuries.
The consequences of such injury range from pain and discomfort to surgical intervention and drastically curtailed mobility. Some individuals end up having to use a motorized wheelchair. Some may even lose the ability to perform tasks basic to self-sufficiency, such as driving, and getting out of bed. And because these people are less active they incur a greater risk of cardiovascular problems and other hazards of a sedentary lifestyle.
The HER Labs are combatting this problem by performing detailed studies of the interaction between a wheelchair and its occupant. The lab employs a "smartwheel"that can be mounted on a variety of wheelchairs. Sensors on the smartwheel detect forces applied to its push rim. Computer analysis of videos of wheelchair users in motion supplements this data, providing a detailed picture of the strain to wrists, elbows and shoulders.
This information helps determine how the adjustable elements of a wheelchair can best be fitted to an individual. It helps doctors and physical therapists teach patients how to use their chair to minimize strain. It also contributes to the development of design guidelines for future generations of wheelchairs.
The lab had produced many innovations. One is a three-speed wheel-chair wheel. Users adjust the gear ratio of the wheel's hub to enhance mobility. Another device, a foot-controlled computer interface, offers an alternative to wheelchair users who have more mobility in their feet than in their hands.
One project now under development at the lab is a joystick for people with hand tremors associated with advanced multiple sclerosis. Rather than registering changes in position, the joystick detects forces applied against it. A sophisticated microprocessor smooths the ride by analyzing the forces and seperating intentional motion from hand tremor. Initially, Cooper says, wheelchair users will have to test the joystick by using virtual reality software to navigate through a simulated obstacle course.
Cooper is especially excited by an ambitions long-term project to provide advanced mobility and flexibility to those severely disabled.
Cooper is especially excited by an ambitious long-term project to provide advanced mobility and flexibility to those severely disabled.
Imagine this task: You are going to go from one end of a room to another. At the same time you are going to tell a friend about what you had for dinner last night and turn off the stereo and the overhead lights. The clock is running. On your mark, get set, go.
A snap, right? But what if you're paralyzed from the waist down and have only limited movement in your upper extremitites? Most people take for granted performing several tasks at the same time. And many also take for granted that this kind of multi-tasking is out of the question for the seriously disabled. Cooper, however, believes otherwise.
There is already equipment on the market that enables a user to propel a wheelchair, speak with a computer-generated voice, and operate other equipment by remote control. "But it's very difficult to use multiple devices," says Cooper. "Especially for people with severe physical impairments who have a very limited functional workspace. They might be only able to control their hand, or they might only be able to use their chin to operate a control input. So our idea is to use a single input device to control multiple output devices.
Cooper's lab, in collaboration with researchers in Europe, is working on a standardized system whereby a single input device, such as a keyboard or joystick, can control several assistive devices. "We'd also like to make each of these devices a little bit intelligent," he says. "If you had sensors on the power wheelchair and pointed it down the hallway, the chair could basically guide you down the hallway, avoiding people and obstacles and allowing you to use your communication device and talk to other people."
Cooper and his researchers will have to clear daunting technical hurdles to make the system work. And with rehabilitation technology, safety is a particular concern. But Cooper talks about the project with the enthusiasm of a runner gearing up for a big race. One thing is certain. At the HER Laboratories, there is a world-class competitor behind the wheel.