Known colloquially as The Sammies, the national awards are given out annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to recognize exemplary civil service among a federal workforce that is often more criticized than honored.
Rory Cooper has a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and is the founding director and senior researcher at Human Engineering Research Laboratories — a program of the Department of Veterans Affairs in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.
Many innovations in assistive technology that wheelchair users take for granted today are thanks to Cooper and his team at HERL. Examples include modern hand rims for wheelchairs that help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff injuries, digital controls for battery-powered wheelchairs and more recently, the PneuChair — a motorized wheelchair that runs entirely on compressed air and is completely submersible in water. It’s these types groundbreaking innovations that earned Cooper the award.
“The Sammies event and the entire experience has been amazing. The best part has been the platform it’s given me to speak about the abilities of people with various impairments, and to the need for government and society to help remove barriers,” says Cooper, who credits his team at HERL along with the veterans and people with disabilities he has worked with for the accolade.
Meanwhile, the HERL team remains hard at work. They are currently working with Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an accessible waterpark in San Antonio, Texas, to bring the PneuChair to market. The NextHealth AgileLife Bed — a hospital-style bed with touchscreen operation that automatically transfers users to a specially-docked wheelchair and back — just made it to market this summer. They’re also investigating the accessibility of on-demand and self-driving cars and smart environments to help people navigate and live more independently.
“I am optimistic about the future of accessibility and its affordability. The ‘internet of things’ is what makes me most optimistic,” says Cooper. “Technologies like beacons are making wayfinding and navigation easier and more effective at low cost. Self-driving cars could make car-sharing possible and provide on-demand mobility at affordable cost.”