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Improving wheelchairs - University of Pittsburgh professor crafts a more durable device

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    Improving wheelchairs - University of Pittsburgh professor crafts a more durable device

    Improving wheelchairs - University of Pittsburgh professor crafts a more durable device

    By Allison Schlesinger, Associated Press Writer 09/17/2002

    PITTSBURGH - When Rory Cooper suffered a spinal cord injury in a bicycling accident in 1980, he was given a bulky wheelchair that broke within six weeks.

    He was frustrated with the heavy, uncomfortable device and soon learned that wheelchair technology hadn't changed much since the 1950s. That inspired Cooper to dedicate his engineering career to creating lighter, better fitting and more durable wheelchairs.

    He's now, among other things, a University of Pittsburgh professor and the chairman of the school's Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology.

    On Wednesday, Cooper, who is also director of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare Systems' National Center of Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technology, will receive the VA's Olin E. Teague Award for his work with veterans with disabilities.

    The award is given to an employee who has made contributions toward the rehabilitation and improvement in the quality of life of war-injured veterans.

    Cooper is being honored for his work as "probably the most visible advocate and scholar in the country in the area of rehabilitation of paralyzed individuals who use wheelchairs," VA officials said in a prepared statement on their Web site.

    Cooper was a 20-year-old enlisted Army soldier when a truck hit his bike as he was riding in Germany.

    After the accident, he studied engineering at California Polytechnic State University and eventually received his doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

    At first, Cooper aimed to create a better wheelchair for himself and his friends, but soon found he could help others.

    "I've matured over the years. Initially, I worked to provide a better wheelchair. But then I found it's important to not just design a better wheelchair, but to improve access to better wheelchairs and improving access in the community," he said.

    One of the first improvements Cooper tackled was building wheelchairs that were light enough to race. A bronze medal winner in the 1988 Paralympic Games, Cooper's designs helped other participate in wheelchair racing and cycling.

    But his work with lighter wheelchair components also helped bring down the weight of nonracing devices, said John Bollinger, the deputy executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

    For example, Bollinger, who has used a wheelchair since 1969, once used a device that weighed 55 pounds. His wheelchair now weighs 17 pounds.

    The VA award also honors Cooper for advocating the development of wheelchairs that can adapt to the users' height, weight and other needs. He helped the VA create guidelines for the prescription of wheelchairs.

    "The VA was once the worst provider of wheelchairs. They would stockpile wheelchairs and had a Model T approach: You can get any color you want, as long as it's black," Cooper said.

    Adjustable wheelchairs are important because users spend, on average, 16 hours a day in the device and Cooper realized that a poorly fitting wheelchair can take a toll on the users' bodies. Cooper also found that many manual wheelchair users suffer from shoulder injuries, lower back injuries and repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome.

    In 1998, Cooper and Pitt's Human Engineering and Research Lab conducted a $3.5 million study of how people and their wheelchairs work together. They generated clinical proof that certain positions are healthier than others.

    Bollinger said thanks to Cooper's research, his quality of life has improved in a short period of time.

    "My shoulders - after all this time of getting in and out of the car, and going up and down hills - have really taken a beating. So I value his work. This is very personal to me," Bollinger said.

    ├é┬ęBeaver County Times/Allegheny Times 2002

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