As a young man, facing life after suffering a spinal cord injury in a bicycling accident in 1980, AAAS Fellow and AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador Rory Cooper wanted three things — to become an engineer, to be able to support a family, and to make a difference in the world. But he didn't think he could obtain any of them in the type of wheelchair that was available at the time.
In pursuit of those goals, Cooper has played an outsized role in helping disabled people achieve autonomy.
At the time of his accident, Cooper was stationed in Germany with the United States Army. He came back home to San Luis Obispo, California, and was planning to enter California Polytechnic State University to study electrical engineering. However, he didn’t think the typical wheelchair could meet the physical requirements of a student. “I was probably going to be pushing three to four miles a day. That wasn't feasible in an 80-pound behemoth,” which was the standard at the time, Cooper said. So Cooper designed an ultralight wheelchair that could travel the distance he had to cover without destroying either the chair or himself.
That was the first of many wheelchairs he has designed and built since then. Cooper has been involved for nearly forty years in the transportation, logistics and trouble-shooting aspects of a revolution that has set disabled people all over the world on the road toward leading fuller lives. He is now the Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, the rehabilitation engineering program at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, which is operated in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We're trying to get people increased mobility so they can participate in society, go to school, go to work, go to church and their kids’ baseball games,” he said.
The HERL team, which includes several staffers with disabilities, doesn't just build wheelchairs. They also develop robotics, cognitive aids, prosthetics, virtual reality tools and training protocols.
“We're problem-driven,” Cooper said.
New technologies, repurposed old ones, medical innovations and space-age materials all have helped his team cross some fundamental problems off its list, but HERL still finds plenty to keep it busy.
Many disabled individuals spend much of their lives in their chairs. Pushing themselves can cause painful repetitive strain injuries like rotator cuff tears, carpal tunnel syndrome and elbow tendinitis. Back pain and pressure ulcers are two other serious, pervasive issues; falling or tipping over are the main reasons users of power wheelchairs visit emergency rooms. And the presence of steps and uneven terrain can keep wheelchair users from entering buildings or enjoying the outdoors.
Cooper’s team has addressed all these challenges and more. They’ve developed hand chairs and motorized chairs; wheelchairs that can step up and down; chairs with sensors to detect pressure ulcers; and simple, inexpensive designs for disabled people in developing countries.
Their latest invention is the astonishing PneuChair, a waterproof wheelchair powered by compressed air. Because it has no batteries or electronics, owners can hose it down to clean it. For the PneuChair’s debut, the team took it through its paces at Inspiration Island, a new inclusion waterpark in San Antonio, Texas. The chairs got drenched, and the kids in them had a blast.
With persistence, ingenuity and hard work, Cooper has achieved all three of his early goals. His determination to succeed has provided the overarching theme of his life and career. He married the physical therapist he’d been seeing in Germany before his accident, who he credits with helping him believe in himself.
Those early days were key. Cooper’s parents had an auto machine shop in San Luis Obispo, and early on, he fell in with a number of other people with disabilities who were also frustrated with their wheelchairs. At the same time, an abundance of lightweight metal, including aluminum and chromoly, suddenly appeared for sale, as aviation enthusiasts began to build do-it-yourself, full-size aircraft.
In addition, “a lot of aircraft parts, particularly quick release pins and titanium bolts from Vietnam-era helicopters, started to go on sale at Army surplus stores,” Cooper recalled. As time went on, “We were able to make a rigid frame, simplify the number of components and make the chair even lighter.”
He eventually got his Ph.D. in both electrical and computer engineering, with a concentration in bioengineering, from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He realized there that “my hobby of making wheelchairs and other assisted devices — people actually did that for a living.” He taught at California State University in Sacramento, and became director of the school’s Human Engineering Laboratory and coordinator of its Rehabilitation Engineering Program before Pitt hired him away in 1994.
Cooper stays fit by working out, up to one and a half hours five times a week. He races handcycles, a type of hand-pedaled bicycle, and, among his many other accomplishments, he was a bronze medalist at the Paralympics in 1988.
He believes his greatest accomplishment from a policy perspective was getting Medicare to cover ultralight wheelchairs, which used to be considered sports chairs. Now they have their own reimbursement code, K0005. That access has saved countless disabled people’s wrists and shoulders, Cooper said.
“The products won't become available unless insurance covers them,” he said.