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Health, Science & Tech

Local Experts Push to Improve and Standardize Wheelchair Design

A group of University of Pittsburgh scientists is working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to create an international network of wheelchair professionals.

The newly formed International Society of Wheelchair Professionals was recently launched with a two-year $2.3 million award from USAID to teach and professionalize device repair, build affiliations and improve the lives of the nearly 70 million people worldwide who require a wheelchair for mobility.

Health Sciences Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Engineering at the Human Engineering Research Lab at Pitt, Jon Pearlman, said the first year will be spent building a network of consumers, designers, manufacturers, rehab professionals and users.  

“In the first year we’re going to sponsor 20 projects around the world with these affiliates to help increase their capacity to do training or wheelchair services or wheelchair testing,” he said

Pearlman is assembling a board of professionals involved in all aspects of wheelchair development to oversee the first year. The grant will provide two full-time positions at the university as well as fund research assistants.

“In the second year we’ll put a lot more effort into actually executing the training and improving wheelchair quality and trying to really leverage the network that we built in the first year to improve the quality of wheelchair services around the world,” he said.

In the last 12 years, USAID has spent $45 million on improving wheelchairs and services worldwide. The federally funded agency originally sought to cultivate a group to develop the professionalization of wheelchair services globally.

Pearlman and co-director Rory Cooper proposed a society of professionals to teach wheelchair manufacturers best practices not only to improve quality care for the region’s users but globally.

“USAID was very interested and excited about that opportunity to build something broader that really included the clinicians and the designers and the wheelchair users,” he said.

After the grant expires, Pearlman says the goal is to continue the society with different topics and ideas.  

“What we see happening is this international society, I don’t know if it will happen in the next two years, but it’ll be sustainable and it’ll raise money through grants and through donations and through membership dues. The goal is that it would move outside of the university and run as a nonprofit,” he said.

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