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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

​Pitt’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center Receives $4.5 Million Grant to Improve Rehabilitation for Wheelchair Users

PITTSBURGH, April 15, 1999 — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Wheeled Mobility, a program within the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS), have received a $4.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, part of the U.S. Department of Education, to improve mobility and rehabilitation for individuals who use wheelchairs.

The grant will allow the center to continue with previous research in the area of wheelchair technology for people with long-term disabilities, including wheelchair safety and transportation, seating and pressure sore prevention, and provide researchers with the opportunity to begin new work—primarily in seating research for children with cerebral palsy.

"We are excited that we will be able to continue our research in this area," said Douglas Hobson, Ph.D., associate professor and the center’s co-director. "For persons without mobility impairments, the freedom and ability to move from room to room, facility to facility or within one’s chosen environment, is often taken for granted. For persons with mobility impairment, mobility can be substantially diminished without the use of an appropriate mobility device. Our goal is to enhance rehabilitation for individuals who use wheelchairs, no matter what their disability."

The importance of wheelchair technology that supports an individual person’s body cannot be underestimated. Proper seating can prevent secondary injuries such as pressure sores or carpal tunnel syndrome that are commonplace among manual wheelchair users. In some cases, proper seating can prevent deformities from occurring. Four of seven of the priorities for the RERC study target wheelchair-seating technology exclusively.

"Demographic trends indicate that by the year 2035, 20 percent of the population will be over 65 years of age, and that 55 percent will have a disability, increasing to 75 percent for those over 75 years old," said Dr. Hobson. "Dependent elderly people in extended care facilities, and others with normal sensation, must endure many hours seated in a wheelchair each day. Very few seating developments have been successfully designed to meet their independent comfort and postural change needs."

According to Dr. Hobson, people with neuromotor and neuromuscular impairments who are unable to control their seated posture usually are placed in what is considered to be the "most functional posture." The unfortunate reality, however, is that the person must maintain this posture for prolonged periods everyday, something that a non-disabled person would neither do voluntarily nor tolerate. "An urgent need exists to allow persons within this population to voluntarily alter their seated posture to meet their needs for both function and comfort," he added. "This grant will allow us to work more closely with industry researchers to develop industry standards for seating."

Other investigators in the center include Clifford Brubaker, Ph.D., professor and dean, SHRS, and co-director of the RERC; Rory Cooper, Ph.D., director, Human Engineering Research Lab and chair and professor of Rehabilitation Science and Technology (RST) at SHRS; Gina Bertocci, Ph.D., P.E., assistant professor, RST; Michael Boninger, M.D., research director, division of physical medicine and rehabilitation; David Brienza, Ph.D., associate professor, RST, and director of the seating and soft tissue biomechanics laboratory; and Elaine Trefler, O.T.R, M.Ed., FAOTA, ATP, assistant professor, RST and occupational therapy.


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