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Improving the Lives of People with Disabilities

Christine M. Heiner, Information Dissemination Coordinator

Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL)

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Pennsylvania    


This article was reprinted with permission from the Vanguard, VA’s Employee Magazine 


Rory Cooper’s vision for the Human Engineering Research Laboratories began in 1980, when he sustained a spinal cord injury in a bicycle accident while serving in the Army. An athlete before his injury, Cooper redirected his efforts toward wheelchair racing and tried to stay active. But his first wheelchair was heavy, oversized, and limited his mobility. Cooper soon realized vast improvement in wheelchair design was needed.


After earning a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, he established the Human Engineering Laboratory at California State University at Sacramento, where he first began to research wheelchair design and use. In the winter of 1993, Dr. Cooper was recruited to join the faculty at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He relocated his lab from Sacramento to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System’s Highland Drive hospital as the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. Shortly after HERL opened, Michael Boninger, M.D., accepted an assignment as the lab’s medical director. HERL began with only one VA merit review grant, one lab area, two graduate students and one staff person. Today, they conduct more than 74 active clinical studies with a staff of more than 50 people, including engineers, physicians, therapists, research specialists, and more than two dozen of the best and brightest graduate students and medical interns in the rehabilitation field. 


HERL Medical Director Dr. Michael Boninger peforms a shoulder ultrasound on a patient. 


As HERL celebrates its 15th anniversary, VA’s Rehabilitation Research and Development Service renewed it as the Center of Excellence for Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering. It is one of only 16 currently funded VA rehabilitation research and development centers of excellence in the United States.   This is the third time HERL has received the Center of Excellence designation. HERL is a collaboration between VA, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of PittsburghMedical Center. It is divided into nine research areas: Assistive Technology Evaluation Lab; Biomechanics Lab; Imaging/Modeling Lab; Design and Prototyping Lab; Electronics Lab; Activities of Daily Living Lab; Virtual Reality Lab; Physiology Lab; and Robotics Lab.


One of HERL’s current projects is PerMMA (Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance), an electricpowered wheelchair fitted with robotic arms. The device is being developed to help wheelchair users that have limited hand function, such as people with high levels of spinal cord injury. Its robotic arms can be manipulated either by the wheelchair user them-selves or via remote control by a user at another location. The wheelchair has Webcams attached that allow the remote user to see the wheelchair user’s environment and control the robotic arms to assist them. Wheelchair users that need assistance can call for help, and through the Web, an assistant can help the user complete the task. Cooper believes devices like PerMMA are at the cutting edge of technology for people with disabilities. “In the future, our impact is going to be even greater in the area of mobility for individuals with very severe impairments—especially powered and robotic mobility,” he said.


HERL biomechanics researchers are now not only looking at wheelchair propulsion techniques, but also wheelchair transfer techniques, or the method by which a wheelchair user transfers from their wheelchair to another surface, such as a car seat. Using reflective markers, an infrared camera system, and force plates that sense weight distribution, researchers are able to closely examine how wheelchair users transfer. “When you’re doing a transfer, you basically have to support your body weight with your arms, and that’s producing an incredible amount of stress on the joints,” explained Alicia Koontz, Ph.D., lead investigator for HERL’s  transfer biomechanics research. “What we want to do is characterize that stress and see if there are ways to teach the person to move differently to minimize the amount of loading on their joints.” Besides safer transfer techniques, data collected in these studies could lead to devices that help reduce pain and injury.


Another project currently underway is a modular wall system to help returning veterans with traumatic brain injury. The wall system will serve as an aide for the injured veteran, using radio frequency identification that allows the user to customize music, lighting, PDA system, appliances, temperature, wall systems and door systems within the home. The wall system includes top and bottom panels that can be customized with almost any color and pattern. To allow for an open view of the apartment that would alleviate confusion, the walls would contain special glass panels that can be made clear or opaque. This innovative wall system could be built both within existing homes and in new construction, and customized to fit specific needs of veterans with various types of injuries.


Several HERL inventions have made their way to the market and are awaiting patent approval. One such invention is the SmartWheel, a special wheel that collects data on the wheelchair user’s propulsion speed, style and force. HERL has used the SmartWheel in numerous research studies over the past 15 years. Now, more than 20 research institutions that study wheelchair propulsion biomechanics use it to observe and improve propulsion techniques to prevent injuries, assist with wheelchair comparison, selection and insurance justification, and teach proper wheelchair propulsion techniques. Spreading the word about research results is also essential to the lab’s mission. “Our goal to improve the lives of people with disabilities includes not only research, but also research training, dissemination of information, and knowledge transfer— actually getting people to use the information,” said Cooper. HERL researchers have published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific journal papers about their discoveries and actively publicize their findings to the wheelchair users who generously participate in their research studies. “When we started working in the area, there were not many people doing wheelchair research,” said Boninger. “Just by the sheer force of the number and dedication of the people that have worked in this lab over the years, there are now more than a dozen wheelchair research labs around the world.”


HERL Director Dr. Rory Cooper shows the SmartWheel. 


Many people in the United States and other countries still use wheelchairs that just barely meet their needs. At the same time, new advances in engineering have tremendous potential to improve the capabilities of wheelchairs and other assistive technology. The way the HERL research team sees it, there is still much work to be done, and they will stop at nothing to improve the mobility and function of people with disabilities.


For more information on HERL use the following link

Use the following link to US Department of Veterans Affairs, Vanguard, the VA’s Employee Magazine for additional interesting articles and stories.




May 2010



Photos: Nick Lancaster, Warren Mark