Rory Cooper Hero Story

Dr. Rory Cooper at University of Pittsburgh HERLRory Cooper, PhD, founder and senior researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Labs (HERL), is a world-renowned expert in wheeled mobility and the pioneer in wheelchair selection and configuration. Dr. Cooper is developing technology to increase the independence of people with spinal cord injury or disease (SCI/D) and equipping them with the skills necessary to operate new technology.

Dr. Cooper founded HERL at the University of Pittsburgh in 1994. Today, HERL conducts more than 74 clinical studies in eight customized labs with 50 staff members, who include engineers, physicians, therapists, research specialists and rehab medical interns. HERL’s mission is to continuously improve the mobility and function of disabled patients through advanced engineering in clinical research and medical rehabilitation. 

Currently, the team at HERL is making progress on multiple projects for both manual and power wheelchairs. For manual chairs, these include a lightweight, rigid backrest that will allow users to comfortably adjust position. Dr. Cooper also says of him and his team, “We’re working on a device to easily lock and unlock the front caster to compensate for the cross-slope on sidewalks, to make nearly any chair a one-arm drive.”

For power chairs, projects include Mobility Enhanced Robotic (MEBot), a “wheelchair that can perform self-leveling, traction control, [and] curb climbing,” while Virtual Seating Coach, “is an intelligent system to help people gain more benefit from their powered seating functions.” 

A fellow of the Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America and the American Institute of Medical & Biological Engineering, Dr. Cooper has worked with the Indian Spinal Injuries Center to increase access to improved care for individuals with disabilities in India.  Cooper says that individuals with disabilities in low-income countries such as India are inhibited in areas like clinical care, employment, housing and transportation. His work there helped to address those problems.

Dr. Cooper‘s success extends beyond science and VA research; he won a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics in the 4x400-meter wheelchair relay and 4th place in the 10,000-meter wheelchair race. In addition, he has accumulated more than 150 medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). 

“Competing in the NVWG provides me an opportunity to learn the needs of other veterans, and to work with my team to create solutions,” he says.

Dr. Cooper says that he still lives by Army values and applies many of the lessons that he learned as a young Sergeant in everyday life. While it’s clear his research has improved the lives of many, “the best part of success,” he says, is “being able to help veterans and people with disabilities find and pursue their dreams.”

Read about more Paralyzed Veterans of America members

Kellen Comer is majoring in International Affairs at the George Washington University.

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