Take A Seat

Reprinted from PN June 2017

Researchers, clinicians and wheelchair users gather to listen, discuss and learn about maintaining a healthy backside at the 33rd International Seating Symposium.

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Sharon Sonenblum sure kept her 33rd International Seating Symposium presentation interesting.

A senior research scientist at Georgia Tech University, Sonenblum’s 75-minute talk focused on what happens to the tissue of wheelchair users’ buttocks when they sit, how everybody’s rear end responds differently when each person sits down and showcased many supportive seat cushions. 

She even showed a little plastic 3D molding of a butt, which she passed around inside a ballroom at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“Well, we were studying it and it’s 3D, so 3D on 2D is harder to show then actually letting someone touch it, feel it, hold it with their hands,” Sonenblum says. “I thought they would come over and hear me talk.”

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Come & Sit Down

The 33rd International Seating Symposium, which ran March 2–4, featured representatives from 30-plus countries, 107 exhibitors and nearly 2,400 attendees, which included clinicians, nurses, physical/occupational therapists, doctors, manufacturers, product distributors and other executives. 

The primary focus: the butt. Seating, cushions, pressure sores, wheelchair selection, manual wheelchairs, power wheelchairs and wheelchair accessories were featured heavily in 108 instructional courses and presentations. Presenters also discussed research studies on how people with spinal-cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and veterans who use wheelchairs are affected. 

Symposium Director and host Mark Schmeler, PhD, OTR/L, ATP, at the University of Pittsburgh, has been the host or co-host for the U.S. event since 2000. He acknowledges it’s more of an academic event, but it’s packed with information that teaches people how to evaluate new technologies, learn new perspectives and share and take ideas home.

Although Schmeler isn’t in a wheelchair, he does have a disability. He grew up with low vision and acknowledged he’s basically blind in both eyes.

Schmeler says people with disabilities get bullied, and he understands what it’s like for them. That’s why he thinks this symposium is important. By empowering people with information, collecting data and providing evidence, clinicians don’t get bullied either.

“When you can empower people with disabilities and you can empower clinicians, a symposium is really a great forum to bring people together and especially people from around the world, too,” Schmeler says. “We’re fortunate in this country we’re able to do a lot of investigation on research. But in other countries, especially people with disabilities aren’t even considered part of the society.”

Growth & Expansion

Paralyzed Veterans of America Keystone Chapter member Rory Cooper, PhD, remembers his first U.S. International Seating Symposium more than a decade ago when about 50 people showed up.

Now, there’s 50 times as many attendees. Technology and big data have made impacts on the research community, too, especially with surveys. For researchers, big data is becoming important. 

“If you look back, people were designing their new products or research based on a survey of 10, 15, 20 people. Now, we’re talking surveys of 1,000 people, 2,000s of people. And that’s allowed us to really hone in on what’s needed, right? But that’s the beauty of this — you’ve got suppliers, you’ve got consumers, you’ve got manufacturers, you’ve got researchers, you’ve got clinicians all focused in this area,” says Cooper, who works at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “It’s all about the wheelchair and seating and everything that goes around it, right? The car, the robot, your home, all of those sort of things. But it’s all really for the wheelchair user.”

Cooper was busy at the symposium. He joined Dan Ding, Hongwu Wang and Abe Clark in a presentation on assistive robotics for manipulation. Assistive robots can help with lots of wheelchair users’ activities, including transferring, eating, drinking, meal prep, opening and closing doors, reaching high shelves and even putting on nail polish.

There are robotic feeding devices, like JACO and ARM, along with strong-arm robots that help with transfers and robot prototypes, like the El-E (helps those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other impairments to retrieve items), KitchenBot and PerMMA, that are in their early development stages. 

“It seems there’s been a switch between 2015 and 2017 from just wheelchairs to all these other devices,” Cooper says. “I think part of that is smartphones have just become so ubiquitous. The number of apps, the wearable technologies you can plug into your smartphone is growing exponentially. The robots have come on the market and started to catch on. I remember in 2015, people were like, ‘Oh yeah, these robots are starting to come out. But are they going to do anything?’ And now, you can see the room was full, right? People are like, ‘These are going to benefit my patients, we need to kind of move in that direction.’ ”

Robotic arms can make it easier for wheelchair users or those with limited hand dexterity to accomplish certain tasks. Clark has seen it firsthand.

“I’m learning from users what the arm is important to them for, rather than what it’s assigned for,” he says. “I had no idea what the arm would be used for.”

Cooper also joined his wife, Rosemarie, and Pittsburgh colleagues Marshall Lee Tempest and Bryan McCormick on a presentation called “Back To The ‘Ideal’ Ultralight Manual Wheelchair.” Cooper, Tempest and McCormick all use wheelchairs, while Rosemarie is an assistant professor at Pitt in the Department of Rehabilitation Science Technology and is the director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Assistive Technology, where she works as a clinical instructor/wheelchair seating clinician. 

The group discussed how fitting is important. Rory Cooper acknowledged there’s a reason why he and his colleagues have their legs tucked underneath their wheelchairs — so they can turn quicker. Additionally, they all have tighter-fitting wheelchairs. 

Cooper has an 11-inch seat on his racing wheelchair and a 12-inch seat on his regular wheelchair. He’s learned one valuable piece of information.

“You cannot make a larger chair smaller,” he says. “But you can make a smaller chair a little bigger.” 

Tempest agrees. A wheelchair basketball player, Tempest used to be in a 16-inch wheelchair and with Rosemarie’s help, decided to slim down to a narrower 13-inch wheelchair. Tempest admits his body feels a lot better. 

“With Surge handrims, I get a really good push and can go down ramps. I’m getting my chair to fit me tight and perfect. It really saves me a lot of strain on my shoulders,” he says. “I can get into anywhere now with the chair and can fit anywhere because it’s nice and compact and I can get around.”

Valuable Experience

The United States holds an International Seating Symposium every two years. 

This marked the first one Sonenblum has attended in the U.S. She’s been to four other International Seating Symposiums, every time in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Each time, they provide her with valuable experiences. Although she spent more time preparing her talk and teaching this year, she says, as a researcher, the symposium helps her in two major ways — networking and the chance to talk to other researchers and clinicians. 

“The networking and the ability to talk to other researchers and other clinicians is huge, you know. Researchers, we can’t act in a vacuum,” Sonenblum says. “We have to be doing work that’s clinically relevant. So, to be surrounded by people who have the potential to use what we’re doing and to engage them and have the conversations and learn from them is huge. They can really drive the way our work goes, as well as, of course, talking to other researchers. You’re always meeting others, especially engineers, who have various skills and then you start seeing, well, this skill can augment what I’m doing and try to form a collaboration.

“And then on the other side, it’s an opportunity to teach as a researcher, to take what you do and hand it to clinicians. If you do it well, your work has the potential to be used the following week in somebody’s clinic. So, that opportunity to teach is, you know, both rewarding and motivating, and it’s what researchers have to do. Research that stays in our labs is not worthwhile. Research has to reach clinicians for it to be valuable.”

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