Department of Veterans Affairs Funding

VA Center of Excellence for Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering

Submitted to: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $5,000,000
Timeframe: 2009-2014 

The VA is one of the largest providers of wheelchairs in the world.  According to the National Prosthetics Database the VA supplied over 83,000 wheelchairs in 2007, a growth of 36% over 2000. The VA spent approximately $125 million in 2007 on these chairs and their related technologies (e.g., cushions, seating systems). According to the Congressional Budget Office, disabled veterans receive the highest portion of their care from the VA, and the VA has seen a substantial growth in the veterans using the system. Total wheelchair related spending in the United States exceeds $3 billion annual. In the Department of Veterans Affairs wheelchairs are frequently used by designated special populations of veteran with spinal cord injury or disease, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, and amputation.  In addition, wheelchairs are needed by many veterans with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Polytrauma.  Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom accounted for over 35,000 unique veterans served by the VA Prosthetics and Sensory Aides Service in 2007 alone. The growth in OIF/OEF veterans using PSAS services is over 50% from 2006 to 2007, and over 2300% from 2003 to 2007. The influx of new veterans using wheelchairs and the aging of veterans from previous era’s is driving a dramatic increase in the number of veterans relying on wheelchairs and associated technology for function, quality of life and community participation. Demographics of veterans are skewed towards people over 65 years of age, with about 34% having some form of disability. VA is widely known for providing services based on scientific knowledge to all veterans who could benefit. However, to assure that VA dollars are well spent, determination of the benefits of new technology is essential.  The importance of wheelchairs and associated technology to the Department of Veterans Affairs and to Veterans necessitate that research be focused in this critical area. The WaRE center has been very successful at achieving its mission of improving the science of wheelchairs and their usage. The ongoing goals of our proposed VA Center of Excellence on Wheelchairs and associated Rehabilitation Engineering (WaRE) are to: 

  • Improve design, selection, configuration, and use of wheelchairs and related technology to improve health and quality of life of veterans.
  • Evaluate new technologies not currently applied to the area of wheelchairs to see if they may benefit veterans.
  • Evaluate emerging wheelchair related technologies to ensure that they meet their claims and truly benefit veterans.
  • Evaluate critical interaction between participation in vocational and avocational activities, technology, and fitness.
  • Participate in the development of international standards that improve wheelchairs, seating, and prosthetics worldwide.
  • Build research capacity by training clinicians, scientists, engineers, graduate students and medical residents. 
  • Strengthen our environment for recruiting new investigators into VA RR&D, and mentoring their careers.
  • Disseminate information that we generate to researchers, clinicians, and veterans nationwide (e.g., Paraplegia News, web-site, HERL Newsletter).
  • Provide a directly link to veterans across the nation through significant involvement in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic (NDVWSC).
  • Leverage support by successfully obtaining additional funding from VARR&D and other research agencies. 
  • Actively engage in collaborative research both internal and external to the VA. For example, continue to build upon our relationship with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Centers.
  • Improve the provision of wheelchairs through education and clinical support in the VHA locally (in Pittsburgh), regionally (Veteran Integrated Service Network, VISN, 4) and nationally.

WaRE will focus on two themes of investigation: 1) clinical application of and 2) engineering innovation in wheelchairs and associated rehabilitation engineering. These themes were selected as being of high relevance to the VA and to veterans who use wheelchairs. What follows is our application to continue this important work.

Studies funded by this grant

  • Human Engineering Research Laboratories Assistive Technology Registry
  • Field Evaluation of a Highly Adjustable Chair for Throwing Athletes
  • Sports Participation Outcomes
  • Survey of Cognitive Assistive Technology Usage
  • Brain-Computer Interface Survey
  • Musculoskeletal Ultrasound Repeatability
  • Investigation of Assistive Technology for Mobility Used by Veterans with Spinal Cord Injury
  • Development of Transfer Scoring System
  • Investigation of carpal Tunnel Pathophysiology in Computer Keyboard Users
  • Improving the Quality and Fit of Rigid Backrests for Manual Wheelchairs
  • Evaluating the Comfort of Wheelchair Seating Systems
  • Comparison of Performance of Commercially Available Mobility Devices


VA Senior Research Career Scientist

Principal Investigator: Rory A. Cooper, PhD
Submitted to: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $743,050
Timeframe: 2008-2015

Dr. Cooper’s primary research area is rehabilitation engineering. Dr. Cooper, himself a veteran with a spinal cord injury, has dedicated most of his professional life towards improving the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury/dysfunction. He has does research to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of assistive technology, and to understand and prevent secondary disability. Dr. Cooper’s work is often directed towards helping the most severely impaired veteran. His research has far reaching impact and is often published in the most prestigious rehabilitation journals. Dr. Cooper also makes the extra effort of applying his research to benefit veterans and to translating the results into lay terms.

Dr. Cooper is VA Senior Research Career Scientist and Director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, home to the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Center in Pittsburgh. He is Distinguished Professor and FISA Foundation and Paralyzed Veterans of America Chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh.  These include studies designed to elucidate (a) the biomechanical mechanisms underlying upper extremity and back repetitive strain injury among individuals with spinal cord injury, (b) the nature of wheelchair usage in natural environments, and (c) novel design and evaluation of new technologies to benefit veterans with severe disabilities. 


Understanding Quality and Equity in Wheelchairs for Veterans

Principal Investigators: Larissa Myaskovsky, PhD; Michael Boninger, MD
Co-Investigators: Michael Fine, MD; Galen Switzer, PhD; Kelly Burkii, PhD
Submitted to: Department of Veterans Affairs
Total Requested Funding: $1,200,776
Timeframe: 2009-2012


Power Seating Function Usage among Veterans - Compliance and Coaching

Principal Investigator: Rory A. Cooper, PhD
Co-Principal Investigator: Jonathan Pearlman, PhD
Co-Investigators: Donald Spaeth, PhD; Dan Ding, PhD; Justin Laferrier, MSPT; Asim Smailigic, PhD
Funding Source: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $1,052,500
Timeframe: 2009-2013


Computer Based and Virtual Assessments of Power Wheelchair Mobility

Principal Investigator: Rory A. Cooper, PhD
Co-Principal Investigator: Brad Dicianno, MD, MS
Co-Investigators: Bambi Brewer, PhD; Dan Ding, PhD; Harshal Mahajan, MS
Funded by: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $446,500
Timeframe: 2009-2012


Investigation of Transfer Techniques to Minimize Shoulder Joint Loading

Principal Investigators: Alicia Koontz, PhD, RET; Michael Boninger, MD
Co-Investigators: Rory A. Cooper, PhD; Annmarie Kelleher, MS, OTR/L, ATP
Submitted to: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $370,550
Timeframe: 2006-2009


Longitudinal Study of Acute and Chronic Arm Pathology Following SCI

Principal Investigator: Alicia Koontz, PhD, RET
Co-Principal Investigator: Michael Boninger, MD
Submitted to: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $1,028,500
Timeframe: 2009-2014


Accessible Website Design for Cognitive Impairments

Principal Investigator: Armando Rotondi, PhD
Co-Investigators: Richard Simpson, PhD, ATP; Grethchen Haas, MD; Michael Spring, PhD; Satish Iyengar, PhD
Submitted to: VA RR&D
Total Requested Funding: $750,000
Timeframe: 2008-2011


Biomechanical Validation of the Transfer Assessment Instrument (TAI)

Principal Investigators: Alicia Koontz, PhD, RET; Michael Boninger, MD
Co-Investigators: Galen Switzer, PhD; Annmarie Kelleher, MS, OTR/L, ATP
Submitted to: Department of Veterans Affairs
Total Requested Funding: $500,351
Timeframe: 2011-2014


Assessing the Risk of Vibration Exposure During Wheelchair Propulsion

Principal Investigator: Jonathan Pearlman, PhD
Funding Source: VA Career Development Award I 
Total Requested Funding: $176,600
Timeframe: 2009-2011


Building Capacity in Participatory Design for Assistive Technology

Principal Investigator: Jonathan Pearlman, PhD
Co-Investigators: Rory A. Cooper, PhD; Emily Teodorski, BS
Submitted to: VA VISN 4 Competitive Pilot Project Fund
Total Requested Funding: $50,000
Timeframe: 2008-2009


Collecting Community-Based Vibration Exposure of Wheelchair Users to Determine Health Risk

Principal Investigator: Jonathan Pearlman, PhD
Funding Source: VA VISN 4 Competitive Pilot Project Fund
Total Requested Funding: $48,800
Timeframe: 2010-2012


Treatment of a Conforming Splint to Treat Proximal Interphalangeal Joint Contracture of the Finger

Principal Investigator: Ronit Wollsein, MD
Co-Principal Investigator: Jonathan Pearlman, PhD
Submitted to: VA VISN 4 Competitive Pilot Project Fund
Total Requested Funding: $38,800
Timeframe: 2009-2011


Enhancement of Motor Cortex Activity in Persons with Spinal Cord Injury

Principal Investigators: Douglas Weber, PhD; Michael Boninger, MD
Co-Investigators: Wei Wang, PhD; Jennifer Collinger, PhD
Submitted to: Department of Veterans Affairs
Total Requested Funding: $795,429
Timeframe: 2011-2014


Neurofeedback to Enhance Neural Activity Following Spinal Cord Injury

Principal Investigator: Jennifer Collinger, PhD
Funding Source: VA VISN 4 Competitive Pilot Project Fund
Total Requested Funding: $49,100
Timeframe: 2010-2012


Investigation of Cortical Changes Following Spinal Cord Injury

Principal Investigator: Jennifer Collinger, PhD
Co-Investigators (Mentors): Peter Strick, PhD; Michael Boninger, MD; Douglas Weber, PhD 
Submitted to: Department of Veterans Affairs RR&D Career Development Award (in review)
Total Requested Funding: $89,217
Timeframe: 2011-2013


Indentification of Usage and Abandonment Patterns of Mobility Related Assistive Technology (MAT) in Service Members with at Least One Lower Limb Amputation Within One Year of Injury

Principal Investigator: Justin Laferrier, MSPT, OCS, SCS, ATP, CSCS
Submitted to: VA VISN 4 Competitive Pilot Project Fund
Total Requested Funding: $41,400
Timeframe: 2009-2010