Rehabilitation Engineering - Small-Scale with Impact
Historically linked to biomedicine, rehabilitation engineering has matured and broadened to include all assistive devices. For example, curb ramps (mostly used by skateboard riders) came through adaptation for wheelchair riders.
There is a continuum of appropriate engineering: At one extreme are those specific devices which "enable" a person in some critical way - wheelchairs and Braille writers are examples. At the other end are mainstream products which make a critical enhancement to a disabled person's life (off-the-shelf electric can openers save the day for persons with wrist injuries).
Thus, much rehab engineering is transparent, or it just seems like the right way to do something. Adaptations of universal appeal (such as public phones with amplification) are called "universal designs".
"Universal design", touted as "the great equalizer" for the disabled, has born modest fruit: Walgreen's sells a talking medical thermometer. Talking travel clocks (mostly meant for the "gimmick market"), are readily available. To delight your favorite aging homemaker this Christmas, you may procure kitchen implements with large, nonslip handles (notably those by OXO) - tools designed specifically for arthritic hands, but welcomed by every active cook.
But, a rosy picture is not yet in sight: Some of those talking clocks do not provide sufficient feedback for a blind person to independently set them. A major brand of VCR, which "talks", begs for help from a sighted neighbor if a desired program is to be recorded. Only one special-market pager has a talking display for its blind users, and most celiphones shut the blind user out of many features.
Sometimes, legislation steps in to drive universal design. All telephone devices are now required to provide for inductive pickup by hearing aids. Automatic teller machines (ATM's) are supposed to be accessible by the blind.
Within the field, there has been a transformation from the "sickness model" (from biomedicine) to the "functional model" (adaptation being the key). Even with individualized instruments, wellness and functionality dictate the approach. "What abilities have you got? What tasks need to be addressed?" In other words, we have become "task oriented" in our thinking; rather than healing inabilities, true help comes from assisting with daily living and work-related tasks.
I work as a rehabilitation engineer. Together with my associates, we design individual instruments for the blind, we assemble adaptive systems from off-the-shelf materials as appropriate, we make ourselves available to manufacturers as the design their products, and we recommend "policy" wherever proposed legislation requires it. "Rehabilitation engineering" is an expansive field where many talents are employed.
As doors open to accommodate you and your heavy groceries, and when you encounter shelving within your reach, give thanks to "rehab engineering"; we have made this world more friendly for everyone.
About the author: Bill Gerrey has worked thirty years for The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute as an engineer for a federally funded project called "The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Blindness and Low Vision". As a guest lecturer, he has taught principles of rehabilitation engineering to "Vocational Rehabilitation Departments" throughout the US. He advised the French government in setting up an engineering project in Paris. He edits The Smith-Kettlewell Technical File, a magazine for blind hobbyists and professionals.