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Pitt's Rory Cooper awarded the Oscar of public service for wheelchair innovations

Aaron Aupperlee
| Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, 3:21 p.m.
Rory Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories,  shows the air-powered wheelchair developed by his team.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Rory Cooper, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Laboratories, shows the air-powered wheelchair developed by his team.
Dr. Rory Cooper of Gibsonia raises his arms in victory as he is the first to cross the finish-line in Downtown Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. Cooper was joined by about 5,000 runners as they took part in the second-annual EQT Pittsburgh 10 Miler through the streets of Pittsburgh.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Dr. Rory Cooper of Gibsonia raises his arms in victory as he is the first to cross the finish-line in Downtown Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. Cooper was joined by about 5,000 runners as they took part in the second-annual EQT Pittsburgh 10 Miler through the streets of Pittsburgh.
Benjamin Gebrosky, Testing Engineer at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (left) Director Rory Cooper after a demonstration of their air-powered wheelchair at Baker Square, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Benjamin Gebrosky, Testing Engineer at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (left) Director Rory Cooper after a demonstration of their air-powered wheelchair at Baker Square, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

The University of Pittsburgh's Rory Cooper has been given a prestigious award honoring his wheelchairs and innovations aimed at helping disabled veterans and countless other Americans.

Cooper, founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at Pitt, was one of seven people awarded the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. Winners of the Sammies — as the awards are known — were announced Friday.

The Sammies are often referred to as the Oscars of government service.

The Human Engineering Research Laboratory is a collaboration between Pitt, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and UPMC.

"My time in the Army drives me to do the work I do,'' Cooper said in a statement released by the Partnership for Public Service, which awards the medals. "I get my energy from the veterans. If you have the ability to make a difference, you also have an obligation."

A bicycle crash paralyzed Cooper in 1980 while he was in the Army serving in Germany. Cooper has used his injuries as a catalyst to transform the technology and design of wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment. An air-powered wheelchair and scooter developed by Cooper and his team is completely waterproof, meaning veterans could take it hunting or fishing and children can use it to play at a waterpark in Texas.

Cooper's inventions are used by more than 250,000 people, Dr. Brad Dicianno, chief operating officer and medical director for the Department of Veterans Affairs Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, said in the statement. Nearly 100 laboratories and training facilities around the world use research equipment Cooper designed.

"Everything that Rory does, whether it be research, teaching or outreach, is focused on improving the mobility and quality of life for people with disabilities, including veterans," Dicianno said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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