In this week’s Chats with the Chief video, VHA Chief of Staff Jon Jensen sits down with Dr. Rory Cooper, founding director of the VA Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). The vision of HERL is to “create a world where all people with disabilities have unencumbered mobility and function so that they can fully participate in and contribute to society.”
In July 1980, Army Veteran Dr. Rory Cooper was stationed in Germany. While riding his bike one day, he was sideswiped by a bus and then hit by a truck. Because of the accident, Cooper uses a wheelchair. But this experience allowed him to empathize with his fellow Veterans and create accessibility solutions that are as patient-centric as possible.
Now, Cooper is one of the leading researchers behind some of the most cutting-edge accessibility technology coming out of VA. He and his award-winning team of researchers and students at VA’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) work on everything from wheelchairs that don’t require batteries to robotic arms that help Veterans perform everyday tasks.
They even create technology innovations for Veterans competing on the U.S. Paralympic Team.
A diverse team works different angles
Cooper says the idea for HERL started while he was in graduate school and researching for VA as a way to help break down the barriers that made accessibility innovations challenging and slow.
At first, it was just him and two graduate students. Now, HERL has almost 100 people on staff, ranging from physical therapists to senior scientists and students. The diversity of the team allows HERL to approach complex problems from multiple angles and develop solutions that have the most impact for Veterans and those who care for them.
Veterans are at the center
Cooper and his team are united under a single mission to serve those who were selfless in service to their country.
“The Veterans are great to work with,” he said. “It’s hard not to admire people who were young and healthy, by and large, and made tremendous sacrifices for our country. Whatever we can do to help them out, I’m honored to be on board.”