Local meetup showcases disability research while seeking pathway to ‘end users’
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412 Ability TechCreating community with research, inclusion and conversation

Local meetup showcases disability research while seeking pathway to ‘end users’

'We are one family. We all have a stake in this.'

Alex Geht, founder of Testa-Seat, visits Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories on Feb. 9. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Alex Geht, founder of Testa-Seat, visits Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories on Feb. 9. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Researchers, engineers and community leaders shared oohs, aahs — and contact info — during a Feb. 9 meetup hosted by 412 Ability Tech that included  presentations on adaptive and assistive technology and opportunities for future collaboration.

Alex Geht, the founder of Testa-Seat, helped organize the Bakery Square event.

The impetus, the Israeli engineer said, stemmed from a need to coalesce area resources and activities.

“You see many of the people working in the same field, sometimes serving the same people, but they are not connected at all,” Geht said.

For example, Testa-Seat creates individualized 3D-printed seats for children with disabilities.

Whether it’s car seats, high chairs or shower devices, standard products often don’t support children with special positioning needs.

Testa-Seat addresses the issue, its founder said, by taking a child’s measurements and then custom-printing a seat.

Geht and his company moved here a year ago after hearing about Pittsburgh’s vast robotics and engineering community from 412×972, an organization that facilitates economic partnerships between Pittsburgh and Israel, led by Gal Inbar and Dror Yaron.

Yaron, who was one of dozens of attendees at last week’s program, praised Pittsburgh but noted the need to bolster efforts.

“Part of what I see as a challenge is connecting people with needs with the solutions: The solutions exist, the people with needs exist, but it is not easy for either side to find each other,” he said. “Alex, for example, makes seats that can change a child’s whole life, but he can’t go on Yellow Pages and find kids that need it, and kids don’t know about Testa-Seat.”

Friday’s event, and the larger 412 Ability Tech network, enables someone like Geht to meet a clinician, philanthropist or area professional, and for those individuals to meet with Geht and others so everyone can “become aware of what’s out there,” Yaron added.

KitchenBot, potentially coming to a home near you. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Jed Cohen of Omicelo Construction Group said he attended the program to “learn more about assistive technology and to see Pitt’s research lab.”

Located within Bakery Square, University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cohen, Yaron, Geht and dozens of participants spent the afternoon observing HERL’s workspaces and marveling at researchers’ work.

In one corner, visitors learned how older adults or people with diverse needs could gain independence at home.

Rosemarie Cooper, HERL’s associate director for stakeholder engagement, pointed to KitchenBot, an overhead track system designed to aid meal preparation and  cleanup.

While following the track, KitchenBot uses a robotic arm to open and close cabinets and appliances, retrieve items and perform other kitchen tasks, she explained.

In another corner, researchers demonstrated how a transfer and repositioning system improves the quality of life for immobile individuals and their caregivers.

Called “Zero Lift,” the device gently raises and transfers a person from a specialized wheelchair into a bed; it also carefully returns the person from the adaptive bed into the chair.

The goal, researchers explained, is preventing musculoskeletal injuries among caregivers.

Costs related to patient transfers, given repeated manual strain and resulting injuries, are about $20 billion each year, the U.S. Department of Labor reported.

Zero Lift performed 10,000 transfers and more than 20,000 in-bed repositions during 12 months without a single injury, according to HERL researchers.

Cooper led visitors several floors down to a laboratory while describing the need to connect technology with “end users.”

“One-third of the faculty and students at HERL have a disability,” she said. “Inside this fully accessible machine shop, engineers can operate everything from a wheelchair.”

Laser cutters, computers and an eye-washing station are all within the appropriate height and reach and are adjustable from a seated position.

“The whole concept is inclusion and accessibility,” Cooper said.

HERL’s Rosemarie Cooper describes inclusion and accessibility during a 412 Ability Tech meetup. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Moving past large machines, metal rods, steel sheets, scribbled whiteboards and busy engineers, she said, “The whole layout of HERL is that colleagues can converse and work together without barriers.”

Outside the lab’s office is an accolade signed by President Joe Biden on Oct. 24 commending HERL’s founding director, Rory Cooper, for “empowering the lives of millions of Americans.”

“By inventing and developing cutting-edge wheelchair technologies and mobility devices, cultivating the next generation of rehabilitation engineers, and championing wounded veterans and students with disabilities, he moves us closer to being a Nation that is accessible for all,” Biden wrote.

Throughout the program, participants shared contact information and planned future conversations.

Geht said this is exactly the point of 412 Ability Tech.

“In Pittsburgh, there are many organizations, foundations and groups,” he said. “Some are developing products for people with disabilities. Others are providing services for people with disabilities. There are foundations that are supporting these kinds of activities, and universities that are doing research and development. But no one is really connected with each other.”

The value of Friday’s program and 412 Ability Tech is that local entities can partner and ensure their products actually reach “end users,” he added.

Rosemarie Cooper agreed.

“How can they provide services without knowing about HERL and how can we know what’s needed without them?” she said. “We are one family. We all have a stake in this.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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