2023 NIHF Inductee Rory Cooper: Advancing Adaptive Technology
Every day, more than 1 million people across the world rely on wheelchairs to provide them with greater mobility, social inclusion and better quality of life. For his revolutionary innovations in wheelchair technology, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is honored to welcome Rory Cooper as a member of our 2023 Inductee class.
A Lifelong Engineer
Cooper has been a problem solver since his youth. Born in Los Angeles in 1959, he was introduced to engineering in his family’s automotive and repair shop. In an interview with NIHF, he said, “My paternal grandfather had an automotive machine shop — Cooper and Sons — and my mother and father in parallel ran one of those automotive machine shops and repair shops, which was attached to our house.”
In 1980, while serving in the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, Cooper was involved in a bicycle accident that caused a spinal injury and left him paralyzed from the waist down. His commanding general provided significant words of encouragement, which Cooper shared in an interview: “The most memorable thing is he said, ‘You still have a bright future ahead of you. You should go to college. Don't let that dream go.’”
Cooper followed this advice and enrolled at California Polytechnic State University. When he found that an 80-pound chrome and steel wheelchair made it difficult for him to navigate the campus, his problem-solving spirit served him well.
In his family’s shop, Cooper designed and built his own wheelchair, which was much lighter and offered greater maneuverability. This impressive accomplishment would be just the first of Cooper’s many innovative efforts in advancing adaptive technologies.
A Trailblazing Innovator
While in college, Cooper not only studied electrical engineering, but he also started a business making wheelchairs and hand cycles. After graduating with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1985 and 1986, respectively, Cooper enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 1989.
Just five years later, Cooper founded the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). A collaboration between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Pittsburgh, HERL is the nation’s leading assistive technology research laboratory. Cooper continues to serve as its director.
Cooper’s research, coupled with his experience in designing improved wheelchairs, led him to focus on increasing mobility and access for people with disabilities and developing solutions to reduce the repetitive stress injuries experienced by many users of manual wheelchairs.
His work has resulted in innovations including the Natural-Fit Handrim and Surge Handrim, which featured a larger outer surface area for pushing with one’s palm, an inner contoured thumb slot, an ergonomic design, and improved propulsion and braking capabilities. “They're still the world's most popular ergonomic pushrims,” said Cooper. “There's probably half a million of them being used worldwide.”
Another of Cooper’s innovations is the Variable Compliance Joystick with Compensation Algorithms, providing safe, powered independent mobility for older adults and those with severe and complex disabilities. He explained, “If you did digital control and these algorithms, you could expand the number of people who could drive independently, dramatically. It was actually more dramatic than I expected.”
Cooper and his colleagues at HERL continue to create innovative technologies to improve manual and electric wheelchairs, and advance health, mobility and access for people everywhere.
A Paralympic Medalist
Not only does Cooper hold over 20 U.S. patents, he also has won more than 200 medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, competing in wheelchair racing using chairs he designed and built. In 1987, he set a world record in a 10,000-meter race, and at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea, he took home a bronze medal in the 4X400-meter wheelchair relay.
An athlete throughout his life, Cooper is an avid swimmer in addition to competing as a world-class wheelchair racer. The wheelchairs Cooper has built for racing have informed the work he has done in designing models for wider use. “The racing wheelchairs weren't that far of an evolution from everyday chairs,” Cooper said. “They kind of leapfrog each other — like, ‘You build this for racing; I could try that for everybody.’"
In innovation as well as in competition, Cooper demonstrates the power of persistence. “There's a saying in the Army,” he shared. “’You improvise, adapt and overcome.’ So I just kept crawling forward.”
A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the National Academy of Inventors and IEEE, Cooper’s honors include the Samuel E. Heyman Service to America Medal.
Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees
To learn more about the visionary creators and innovators who make up our latest class of Hall of Famers, we invite you to visit our website.