Advancing Wheelchair Research

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An arm that lifts up to 250 pounds, capable of transferring someone from a wheelchair to a couch. A robotic attachment that opens doors and microwaves. A small motor that gives wheelchair users an extra boost as they push forward.

These are just some of the inventions that have come out of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), one of several VA research centers based at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, and the only one that focuses on wheelchairs and related technologies.

“We try to address the clear and real needs of Veterans now and in the future,” said Rory Cooper, HERL director and a longtime National Veterans Wheelchair Games athlete. “One of the unique things about HERL is that we’ve been able to respond to the needs of Vietnam and World War II Veterans as they age, as well as OEF/OIF Veterans.”

Since its inception in 1993, HERL has developed a slew of innovations and technology to improve the lives of wheelchair users of all disability levels. One invention in the works is the Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance, a robotic device designed to help people in wheelchairs with everyday activities, such as reading a magazine or using a vending machine.

But HERL balances the high-tech gadgetry with a mindfulness of the need for equipment that is financially accessible. Researchers are also working on “an extremely low-cost wheelchair” that could benefit people with disabilities in the developing world, said Michael Lain, HERL’s communications specialist.

One recent product of the labs’ extensive research is of particular relevance to Wheelchair Games athletes: a throwing chair for javelin, shot put and discus competitions that provides much-needed stability and a better base for throwing. The chairs made their Games debut in Denver last summer, Cooper said.

“The whole point of doing this work is to help other Veterans improve their lives,” Cooper said. “That’s what motivates us.”

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