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RESNA Founders Fund
RESNA Annual Conference
June 26, 2009

Doug Hobson

Brief History of the Founding of RESNA

RESNA is a success story made possible by the tireless dedication of many volunteers and staff in a vast array of ways over the past 30 years. Although many people have provided vital leadership over the years, RESNA has chosen this time of its 30 year anniversary to recognize the contribution of the five founders of RESNA, with special tribute to Tony Staros who passed away this past July 20th. The founders and their affiliations in 1979 are:

Tony Staros: Mechanical Engineer, Director, VA Prosthetics Research Center, New York, NY

Joseph Traub: Prosthetist, Director, DHEW Technology Program, Washington, DC

James Reswick, Director, REC on Functional Electrical Stimulation, Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, CA

Colin McClaurin: Aeronautical engineer, Director, REC on Wheelchairs, U of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

Douglas Hobson; Mechanical Engineer, Director, REC on Wheelchair Seating for Children, U of Tennessee, Memphis, TN

But first, a brief history of the events and roles of the founders that lead to the founding of RESNA seems in order.

In 1945 The National Academy of Science (NAS) established the Committee on Prosthetics Research and Development (CPRD), under the direction of Ben Wilson, a mechanical engineer, to direct what became known as the Artificial Limb Program. In Canada, about the same time, Colin McClaurin established the prosthetics research program at the Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital in Toronto with Jim Foort, a chemical engineer, as his innovative sidekick.

In 1954, passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (Public Law 565) authorized the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW) to support research and training that would lead to improvements in rehabilitation practices. Joe Traub was named director of the DHEW technology program.

In 1956, the VA Prosthetics Research Center was established in New York under the leadership of Tony Staros. This began a truly remarkable period of interagency and international collaboration, with CPRD coordinating the formulation of research needs, reviewing proposals, evaluating outcomes, including prototype devices, and disseminating results of these activities through workshops and reports.

In the early 60s, it was discovered that thalidomide, a sedative being taken by pregnant women for nausea, was causing severe congenital limb deficiencies in many children. Clinically-based research centers were established in Canada, Western Europe, and Australia where the problem was most acute, to devise improved prosthetic and mobility devices for these children. Fortunately the FDA had not approved the use of thalidomide in the US. These centers attracted additional engineers and others to work as members of clinical research teams, mostly directed by orthopedic surgeons. Through this involvement, engineers became aware of the many technical challenges faced by children with other types of disabilities, and they soon began focusing their talents on specialized seating, mobility, communication, and other aspects of rehabilitation for children. Colin McClaurin and Jim Foort each directed research centers in Canada. In 1963, Doug Hobson, a wide-eyed newly graduated mechanical engineer, joined the Winnipeg Center under the mentorship of Jim Foort. Under the auspices of CRPD, the Child Amputee Program was initiated that annually brought together multi-disciplinary international teams, involving mainly leading orthopedic surgeons, engineers, prosthetists, orthotists, physical and occupational therapists.

The Vietnam War resulted a dramatic increase in the number of servicemen returning home with spinal cord related injuries. This in turn caused a major shift in emphasis within the medical care facilities of the Veterans Administration, which were suddenly faced with the responsibility of providing appropriate care for these veterans. In parallel, engineering research and development programs within the VA shifted an increase focus toward improved wheelchairs, pressure sore management, orthoses, sensory aids, and environmental control systems.

In 1970, CPRD organized and conducted an international workshop in Annapolis, MD to develop a comprehensive plan to apply engineering to improve the quality of life of the physically handicapped through a total approach to rehabilitation, combining medicine, engineering, and related science. The term "Rehabilitation Engineering", as subspecialty of biomedical engineering, was thus born. The workshop report recommended the formation of rehabilitation engineering centers (RECs), to be supported by DHEW and to be complementary to work supported by the VA and others. The report also formulated guidelines for establishing the centers and the objectives to be achieved. It recommended that centers be established in institutions which already had demonstrated ability in rehabilitation engineering, that were associated with a university with recognized excellence in medicine and engineering, and provided rehabilitation services to patients in a clinical environment.

As a result, the Rehabilitation Engineering Center (REC) program was written into law by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112) which identified rehabilitation engineering as a priority of the R&D programs of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) of DHEW. This program was directed by Joseph Traub. The first two RECs were funded by DHEW in 1971 at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, CA and Moss Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Three more RECs were added the following year. The RECs have had a profound effect on the founding and ongoing support of RESNA, as four of the five founders were supported by RSA-REC funds. Likewise, the Veterans Administration funded engineering centers at VA Medical Centers in Hines, IL, Palo Alto, CA, and Decatur, GA. Just as with those funded by DHEW, these centers were established to support teams of engineers and clinicians to address technology needs of veterans with physical disabilities.

In 1976, a workshop on Rehabilitation Engineering education was organized by the RSA-funded REC at the University of Tennessee, directed by Doug Hobson. The workshop, chaired by McClaurin, developed a plan for the education of rehabilitation engineers to work as researchers, in industry and as service providers within rehabilitation settings.

It was from this eclectic background and experiences of the North American rehabilitation engineering leadership, working with and within multidisciplinary research and clinical settings with close affiliation with their international colleagues, that the subspecialty of rehabilitation engineering developed and the vision for the formation of a society that would support its growth and continued development was formulated. In 1978, at the Interagency Conference on Rehabilitation Engineering (ICRE), five founding colleagues met to crystallize the vision a new society and agree upon a plan to generate the bylaws and mission statement that would support the development of the vision. In 1979, at the ICRE held in Atlanta, 150 founding members endorsed the vision and mission for the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America (RESNA), as presented by Tony Staros. Tony then stepped aside and endorsed Jim Reswick as the first President of RESNA. The following year the first RESNA annual conference was held in Toronto, co-chaired by Mickey Milner and Doug Hobson.

The stated mission of RESNA was: to impmve the quality of life of persons with disabilities in all possible ways; from recognition of their needs, through design, development, evaluation, and production of devices and modification of housing and transportation envimnments, to enhancing the effectiveness of the delivery system to meet their needs. From the outset, RESNA was envisioned as a multi-disciplinary society that was open to all persons, including individuals with disabilities, who were involved in development and delivery of assistive rehabilitation technology. To emphasize that RESNA was not only a society of rehabilitation engineers, the name was later changed but the acronym retained, "Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America" (RESNA).

The RESNA Founders Fund (RFF)

Over the intervening 30 years RESNA rapidly became the leading membership organization in the fields of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. While there have been significant changes in technology, funding, service delivery, and competing conferences, RESNA remains the only professional organization dedicated to the public welfare through scientific, literary, professional, and educational activities by supporting the development, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge and practice of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology in order to achieve the highest quality of life for all citizens. RESNA's leadership in the field of assistive technology is even more important today than it was when first conceived by our Founders 30 years ago.

The main purpose of the RESNA Founders Fund is to enable RESNA to continue its leadership role, including the support of new initiatives, that will meet the challenges of today and tomorrow in the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. In general, under the administration of the Board of Directors, the funds will be used to: host consensus building meeting(s), widely communicate its mission to members and others, and provide seed funding for innovative activities that will help RESNA fulfill its leadership role. A new ad-hoc committee will be formed to help solicit funding, review member proposals for new initiatives and make recommendations to the Board.

Call to RESNA Fellows

RESNA has rarely, if ever, called upon its fellows for financial support. Most RESNA Fellows are now either in or nearing retirement years. It is often the time when one reflects on their careers and thinks about giving back to those organizations that have helped make our work time the most meaningful. For many, RESNA will surface as being at least one such meaningful organization. Hopefully, as a Fellow of RESNA and one-time strong supporter of its mission, Fellows will see value and purpose in the continuance of a strong and ever-evolving RESNA. Of course, solicitation for contributions will not be limited to RESNA Fellows. Hopefully, the majority of RESNA members will see fit to support the future of RESNA through contributions to the Founders Fund.

Douglas Hobson, PhD
RESNA Founder
June 20, 2009