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Joint US Department of Veterans Affairs, University of Pittsburgh Research Facility HERL Puts Accessible Mobility at the Forefront of Progress

Posted: July 25, 2023

How does your access to transportation affect the way you live?

You’re connected to grocery stores, healthcare appointments, social visits and more in a system that’s designed based on ease of mobility.

Now imagine if new designs in technology were taking that ability away. How would you get from point A to point B?

As new vehicle designs that are changing accessibility in transportation are developed, the team at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) is thinking about this and other usability challenges for those with mobility impairments especially wheelchair users.

HERL is a part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as the Center for Wheelchairs and Assistive Robotics Engineering, operated in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh. Founding Director and VA Senior Research Career Scientist of HERL and FISA Foundation – Paralyzed Veterans of America Distinguished Professor Dr. Rory Cooper started the lab about 30 years ago, taking inspiration from a graduate advisor who challenged him to take ownership of research and development that mattered to him.

The area is personal for Dr. Cooper, who himself is an engineer who uses a wheelchair due to spinal cord injuries, and his wife, Rosemarie Cooper, MPT, who worked for years as a physical therapist before joining her husband at HERL where she serves as Associate Director of Stakeholder Engagement.

And they aren’t the only ones deeply connected to the work they do—the entire staff and research team is keenly invested in creating mobility solutions for this community, and even one third of the student researchers in the lab have impairments that impact their mobility.

“HERL is a team of engineers, therapists, physicians, counselors, and more working together to develop advanced technology for mobility and to enhance independence and improve quality of life,” Rosemarie Cooper said. “Our vision has always been to produce the next generation of engineers including people who have a disability.  Advances must directly include people with disabilities on the team. If not us, then who else?”

HERL is working to continuously improve the mobility and function of people with disabilities through advanced engineering and the application of robotics in clinical research and medical rehabilitation. When it comes to transportation, there are new challenges emerging as present-day focus areas for vehicle engineers—like electrification—aren't taking into account the accommodations needed for accessibility.

Rosemarie Cooper noted that as engineers look at battery storage for these new electric vehicles, they are taking over the extra chassis space that has traditionally been used to add accommodation features like wheelchair ramps. With no real solutions for how a wheelchair user may get into the vehicle or store their mobility device, these developments are creating more problems for these passengers as opposed to solving them. 

As the Department of Transportation is looking into the future of autonomous vehicles, they want to utilize HERL to research the logistics of accommodating everyone as the planning of city infrastructures to accommodate AVs progresses.

Rosemarie Cooper noted several aspects that need to be considered in order to make autonomy accessible for all. Just a few of the questions to be answered: How do we get powerchairs into the vehicles and engage passenger safety restraints? How to we accommodate a person that is blind? What signals to them that they are in the right car, that they go to the right destination, and what information does a visually impaired person need from the autonomous car?

Getting vehicle engineers to take that into account, though, has been a challenge. Rosemarie Cooper shared. She’s tried to work with engineers in the automotive industry, who express an openness to receive information from HERL, but are reticent to provide insights to their own work due to fears around sharing proprietary designs. Without two-way information sharing, it becomes difficult for HERL to focus their research where they need to.

“We need industry manufacturers to be willing to share ideas on the ways they will be making their vehicles accessible,” Rosemarie Cooper said. “When talking about accessible transportation for all, you have to mean it.”

In today’s world, transportation plays a crucial role in an individual’s independence. Industry must come together to ensure accessibility for all. If engineers truly wish to advance mobility solutions and knowledge for the benefit of humanity—the mission statement of SAE International—collaboration with entities like HERL is crucial.

Want to keep up with the work HERL is doing? Join the quarterly HERL Newsletter email list, or reach out to the lab at

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, HERL is hosting an open house on July 27th from 2-6 pm with demonstrations of their current projects. Register to attend here.