Vol. 1, Issue 2 -- August, 1995

What is Research ?

By Jane Fee

In addition to developing new assistive devices for the benefit of people with physical disabilities (consumers), one of the goals of the Consumer Innovation Laboratory is to educate all consumers about the nature of rehabilitation engineering research. In keeping with that goal, this article will provide some background on research and how ideas get transformed into useful products.

When anyone outside the rehabilitation engineering field comes in contact with this area of work, their first reaction might be "what interesting work". When it is discovered that this research helps to design new devices their second and third reactions might be, "could you build this?" and "why does it take so long to design/build it?". This reaction of "why does it take so long to build?" is a common response among the general public, including the disability community. Lets examine how an assistive device might be created.

Webster's dictionary defines research as a careful hunting for facts or truths, inquiry, and investigation. To apply this definition to the area of rehabilitation engineering, the process begins with a consumer who has a wish or need for assistance in a certain area. If this assistance can be provided by creating a specific device the process of creating that device has begun. In a traditional research setting this is the point at which the design engineer would go to the research library and try to discover if such a device is needed is in existence. From the consumers perspective, it might be time to contact a magazine such as Accent on Living, a Social Worker, or Rehabilitation Specialist to learn if a device exists to aid in the desired task.

Assuming that the device has not been manufactured, and the decision has been made to create such a device, the next step is to carefully define what the device must do. Traditionally this is called creating a design specification. From the consumer's viewpoint this would be like creating a wish list of the things the device absolutely must do along with what you would like it to do. The next step in the traditional design process would be the building of one or more prototype (one of a kind) devices which seem to met the requirements outlined in the design specification. In the case of the consumer, this might be where he/she goes to a hardware store to look for parts that might be jerryriged into a usable device, he/she asks for assistance from rehabilitation services, or he/she finds some neighbor down the block to help build a device. Once a prototype device has been designed it must be tested and evaluated to see if it meets the original design specifications. Here the consumer does the same thing, he/she uses the device to see if it helps perform the desired task. Assuming the device meets the original design specification, it could now be sent to a manufacturer who would consider mass producing the item for general consumer use.

This basic plan outlines the research-design process behind every new device on the market. To address the issue of why the process often takes a long time, (sometimes years) one must consider that the professional researcher has to be very thurough in investigating whether any comparable devices exist. This may involve not only reading about them through checking various patents, etc. but also getting samples to test out. Developing a design list of what the device must do and what we would like it to do is also much more involved. This is because the researcher must try to identify the needs and wants of as many people as might benefit from the device instead of just one person. Testing a prototype involves similar complications and this stretches the process out even further. The final step of enlisting the support of a manufacturer to make the device commercially available can be a full-time job in itself. Without it though, devices seldom get farther then the laboratory shelf or an article in a professional journal.

Granted there are many similarities between the work of the do-it-yourselfers and professional laboratories. Even so, good rehabilitation engineering must be thorough and exacting in order to achieve the most benefit for everyone.