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'Spin doctor' runs wheelchairs
through the gauntlet

rigorous.test

July 23, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT)

From Correspondent Dick Wilson

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Professor Rory Cooper of the University of Pittsburgh is crash-testing wheelchairs. The tests are part of his efforts to improve the lives of people like himself, who depend on them for mobility.

Cooper was riding his bike 16 years ago when he was sideswiped by a bus, and then hit by a speeding truck. He nearly died.

"I had an 80-pound steel wheelchair that I hated when I first got out of the hospital," Cooper says. "I have been building wheelchairs ever since."

And now he's called the "spin doctor."

His lab at the Veteran's Hospital in Pittsburgh drops the chairs thousands of times to simulate three to five years of normal use over curbs and similar obstacles. But the drops happen in a 24-hour period.

test.travel

"Over there we do 100 miles," Cooper says, pointing out one area of his lab. "Over here, the same chair is taken from that machine and put on this one, with a 220-pound dummy. We test it with 6,666 drops."

Another test reproduces the effect of constant traveling over minor bumps. The chairs are rolled over drums with half-inch slats simulating cracks and door thresholds.

And some of the wheelchairs just don't make the cut. Some, says Cooper, are outdated, even dangerous.

"They're poorly designed products that probably will lead to other, secondary disabilities," he says.

The professor's lab is funded by the University of Pittsburgh and the Veteran's Administration, but Coopers' team also provides testing and design services for industry, insurance companies and consumer groups.

Cooper and his colleagues are measuring the human element of wheelchairs -- the strain on the human body caused by using them. With video and computer testing, they record the painful forces applied to joints in the hands and shoulders. Those forces can lead to rotator cuff problems and carpal tunnel syndrome, the same injuries suffered by athletes and office workers.

Cooper's long-term goal is better wheelchair design, reducing the number of injuries.

light.mobile

"(And to) provide people better functional mobility so they can work, play, and be integrated into their communities," he adds.

Cooper's lab has helped industry develop lighter composite frames for wheelchairs of all types. And his future vision is for wheelchairs for people with the most severe types of spinal injuries.

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