UPitt’s Dr. Cooper wins ‘Oscar’ of gov’t service

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

WASHINGTON – Dr. Rory Cooper has a long list of credentials and achievements, but what he’s looking forward to most about his most recent award is the platform it provides for talking about people with disabilities.

On Sept. 27, Cooper received the “Science and Environment Medal” as part of this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, known as the Sammies and the “Oscars” of government service.

“Having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t contribute,” said Cooper, University of Pittsburgh professor, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences associate dean for inclusion and Human Engineering Research Laboratories founder director. “You just need the right opportunities.”

Cooper is a manual wheelchair user himself. He was a young solider in the Army, when he was run over by a bus and suffered a paralytic spinal injury.

Cooper was honored for his work designing “innovative wheelchairs and other assistive technologies that have markedly improved the mobility and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of veterans and others with disabilities,” according to the Partnership for Public Service, which presents the awards each year.

“It’s wonderful to learn that your colleagues think that highly of you,” said Cooper, who was nominated for the award by, among others, Dr. Brad Dicianno, the medical director of HERL and an associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the UPitt Medical Center, who was once a student of his.

When asked which of his designs stands out the most, Cooper says that would be like “picking his favorite child.” But when pushed, he cites a square cross brace for folding manual wheelchairs, ergonomic hand rims and a virtual seating coach licensed by Permobil— all products that have improved the quality of life for users and reduced health care costs.

“When (former VA Sec. Bob McDonald) heard about the award, he said, what’s remarkable about Rory is that he’s saved more money for the government than we’ve ever given him in grants,” Cooper said. “He also said, he never made any money from any of it; he just did it to help people.”

McDonald hit the nail on the head with his last comment.

“To increase someone’s level of mobility or to get someone home or to prevent someone from getting injured—that’s what it’s all about,” Cooper said.