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May 11, 2017

VA adaptive technology pioneer recognized for lifetime of public service

Dr. Rory A. Cooper 
Director, Human Engineering Research Laboratories
 Dr. Rory A. Cooper
Director, Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Senior VA research career scientist Dr. Rory A. Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), was named one of 26 finalists for the 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. The awards are given by the Partnership for Public Service to recognize exceptional federal employees who have distinguished themselves through singular efforts to improve the health and welfare of Americans.

Cooper was named as a science and environment medal finalist for his work to "design innovative wheelchairs and other assistive technology equipment that has greatly improved the mobility and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of disabled Veterans and other Americans," according to the Partnership's press release.

"Rory Cooper's inventions are used by over one-quarter million people with disabilities, and research equipment he designed is being used in nearly 100 laboratories and training facilities around the world," said Dr. Brad Dicianno, chief operating officer and medical director for HERL, a joint venture between VA and University of Pittsburgh.

As a disabled Veteran himself, Cooper has intimate knowledge of life in a wheelchair. He was paralyzed in a bicycling accident while stationed in Germany in 1980.

Following his separation from the U.S. Army, Cooper earned successive engineering degrees from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and completed a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 1989.

He is distinguished professor of the department of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh, a 1988 bronze medalist in the Paralympic Games in Seoul Republic of Korea, and a member of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Cooper is credited with transforming the standard of care for people with disabilities:

  • He and his team are responsible for 25 patents that have improved wheelchair design and technology.
  • He is the author of two textbooks, "Rehabilitation Engineering Applied to Mobility and Manipulation" and "Wheelchair Selection and Configuration," and coeditor of several more books to include the award winning "Care of the Combat Amputee."
  • His innovations have revolutionized the design and functionality of wheelchairs—for example, a wheelchair with robotic arms that has hands that can grasp objects.

Dr. Rory A. Cooper 
Director, Human Engineering Research Laboratories
 Dr. Rory A. Cooper
Director, Human Engineering Research Laboratories

He is intimately concerned with improving quality of life for people who have spinal cord injuries and other diseases that confine them to a wheelchair.

One of the latest inventions to come out of HERL is the PneuChair, a waterproof wheelchair that runs entirely on compressed air. The wheelchair was designed for a theme park in San Antonio that was built specifically for individuals with disabilities.

Over the past 16 years, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America program has honored over 400 outstanding federal employees. "If we are to get the best from our government, we must follow the example of top private-sector organizations by identifying and celebrating employee achievements," said Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service.

The Service to America finalists were honored in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on May 9. They are contenders for seven Service to America Medals that will be announced at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on September 27.

*To read about VA research on Spinal Cord Injury, visit this webpage.

*Find out about the MEBot robotic wheelchair being developed and tested at HERL.

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