Fellow Douglas Hobson
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Fellow Douglas Hobson

Douglas A. Hobson, PhD, P Eng

Born: September 23, 1938 - Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Douglas Hobson

Entry into the AT Field: 1963

How I got into the field

In 1963, I sought an engineering job as an ME student in a new research program located in a rehabilitation center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Fortunately I was hired, worked for the summer, did my senior project in the field and was hired upon graduation in 1965 for $9500/yr. I received my B.Sc in 1965 and my Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 1989.

Important event(s) that influenced my early decision to get into the assistive technology field

In Canada, the political response to the thalidomide tragedy in the early 60's was to appropriate funding for four rehabilitation engineering research centers. Colin McLaurin and Jim Foort retuned to Canada from the US to head the programs in Toronto and Winnipeg, respectively. Jim Foort hired me as a sophomore engineering student in the Winnipeg program, to work with two thalidomide infants with missing limbs. Jim's experience and driving interest was lower limb prosthetics-which soon became my passion. To work with Jim Foort, and be indirectly associated with Colin McClaurin and later by affiliation with Ben Wilson and Tony Staros was an amazing experience for a young engineer from Seven Sisters (small town just outside Winnipeg), Manitoba.

Why I chose the AT field

Motivation: as a student-need for a summer job in a mechanical engineering related field. Later--opportunity to make an engineering contribution in a career that appealed to my sensibilities.

My inspiration and mentor

I worked directly with Jim Foort, who is now 84 and still as creative as ever. Jim is the most unique person I have ever met in my life. To have him as a mentor, at probably the most formative stage of my career, was indeed a key factor in my decision to pursue the path I did. Jim is a very liberal and lateral thinker and generous to a fault with his ideas, goodwill and resources.

Why the field is important to me and the central focus of my work

RE has been my passion and career for more than 40 years. It has been important to me because it has provided the platform upon which I have been able to make the contributions I felt were important and worthy of my life's energies. My central focus has been mainly in wheelchairs and wheelchair seating R & D and related education, AT services, and industry standards development.

My memorable successes and greatest contributions to the field
  • Leading the development of pioneering AT service programs in Winnipeg and Memphis, Tn.
  • Establishing RESNA in 1979, as the youngest member of the founding group of five (Staros, Traub, Reswick, McClaurin, Hobson).
  • Initiating and leading the early wheelchair standards activity in RESNA, in partnership with Colin McLaurin.
  • Establishing the early continuing education programs in specialized wheelchair seating for children in partnership with Elaine Trefler
  • Developing the early concepts for modular wheelchair inserts, bead seats and foam-in-place seats and related accessories, with emphasis on pediatric seating
  • The co-hosting of the 1976 meeting in Knoxville, TN, that developed the justification and blueprint for rehabilitation engineering and education of rehab engineers.
  • Leading the early development of industry standards for wheelchair technology and later wheelchair transportation safety, within RESNA, SAE and ISO.
  • Leading the early development of industry standards for wheelchair technology and later wheelchair transportation safety, within RESNA, SAE and ISO.
My most memorable failures

In essence, I was fired twice, both times in my hometown of Winnipeg. At the time it seemed like a drastic failing on my part-but in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened-because it provided the need and opportunity to find or create new career opportunities-both superior to the those I left behind. In both cases, exciting new opportunities were found in the US, in Memphis in 1974, and in Pittsburgh in 1992.

Significant changes and advances in the field since I first entered it
  • Establishment of the NIHR/NIDRR-RERC Program in 73-74, and later the VA-Research centers.
  • Recognition by Medicare, Medicaid and Special Ed, that AT is a clinical service worthy of government support.
  • Rise of consumer empowerment, consumer-driven services and participation of more consumers in research activities.
  • Establishment of RESNA and the RESNA credentialing program.
  • Establishment of International Seating Symposium, Closing the Gap and C-Sun and other continuing education venues.
  • Availability of industry standards that are now improving the quality and safety of all wheelchair, wheelchair seating, and wheelchair transportation technology.
  • ADA - that has created the national environment for positive systems change that has impacted the careers of all AT professionals and those they serve.
On the future of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology

The initial model for RE was one of viable roles for increasing numbers of engineers in the AT industry, and as service delivery partners in rehabilitation settings of all kinds. Smaller numbers of REs, mainly those with advance degrees, would find their homes in academic and related research settings and would generate RE's with skills to work in both settings. That vision has not been fully realized-mainly due to the lack of recognition and therefore payment of RE clinical services. Also, I feel the NIDRR/RERC vision has been distorted to the extent that many RERCs are no longer lead by engineers, and as a result many Center activities have no significant engineering content. As a result, the RERC movement is not producing sufficient engineering leaders with vision and abilities to sustain the RE momentum, both politically and professionally, into the future. In contrast, I think the field of AT will continue to grow with or without RE. The industry, in spite of ongoing funding issues, is fundamentally healthy and the need for AT services will only continue to grow as America ages and obesity begins to take its toll.

My role within RESNA and what it gave back to me

During the period from 1980 to 1995 or so, I served in various leadership roles, including as President, 1991-92. I can not begin to count the ways that RESNA has provided a platform and colleague network that have drastically enriched by career and sense of personal self-worth through contribution. Today, I continue to serve as a active member on 3-4 ANSI/RESNA -Standards Committees and thereby still reap the many benefits.

On the future of RESNA

RESNA no longer lives in the environment for which if was originally created to serve. I strongly encourage the leaders in RESNA to again provide the leadership needed to redefine the role and future blueprint for RESNA, in such a way that it will serve the needs of the AT field for next 20-30 years. Furthermore, I believe it's too late for a series on small incremental changes.

My suggestions for those just entering the field

Be courageous in pursuing your career passions. Be an agent for positive change through consensus building. Support the big picture developments of the AT field or one day you may not have a career to pursue. If you keep unselfish contribution as your primary focus, your rewards will follow. Be generous in your acknowledgement and support of others, as you never know when you may kindle a passion in the heart and career of a younger colleague. And finally, along the way be sure to quietly take enjoyment and pleasure from your successes and quickly forget the rest-as in the long run they will become the necessary 'dust' of a successful career.