Since 1983 RJ Cooper has been making software and gadgets for those with severe disabilities, including autism. Known lovingly as “The Assistive Tech Guy,” he travels around the country, at his own expense, to work on some of the most difficult challenges, coaching and trying different solutions to help. At age 62, he’s still in demand! I caught up the RJ in between his road trips to find out more about what he does and who he serves.
You call yourself an Assistive Tech Guy! Can you explain more about who you are and the people you serve?
Back in 1983, instead of joining the Peace Corp, which didn’t have a lot of need for computer guys, I racked my brain to think of ways to use my current major, Electrical Engineering (EE) with Digital Emphasis, towards humanity. Along with maybe 50 others around the earth, I came up with the idea of using computers for persons with disabilities. The field grew from that era to what it is now, with tens of thousands within it, conferences and journals devoted to it, and people all over the world benefiting from it.
What started you on this path?
I got hooked up with the Dept. of SLP/Audiology at the University of Utah while still an undergrad in the EE dept. Then a special needs school allowed me to call it ‘home’ with my own classroom, computers, and full access to all students, 5-21 years old, with a variety of disabilities. I found my niche and have stayed true to it all these years. I love working, hands-on, with all ages, all populations, all over the country!
What kinds of special software and devices do you make for people with special needs?
My offerings are based on requests and needs. I listen to parents, professionals, and disabled persons. I create what they ask for. This has led to several hundred inventions, programs, and now apps. These range from switch-adapting a special TV remote, to apps for iPads that teach severely autistic persons about using pictures to convey language.
What is it that you do for resource teachers and therapists?
I consult. They contact me, even those with long experience, about their ‘tough’ cases. I am flattered that I am considered a *resource*, academically and practically. Many times, I ask for pictures or a video of their situation so I can make good suggestions.
How do you help their clients directly?
Sometimes, I come right to their home! I travel all year, going into school districts and facilities of all sizes. Several times, I’ve even visited, at no charge, the homes of people in need. But overall, I provide any solution I can come up with for anyone, even if it’s just 1 person.
Tell us about your ‘Road Trips.’ What are they and how are they making an impact?
Each month I go to a different geographical area and visit, at no charge, and work with up to 8 learners a day. These days, with the popularity of the iPad, I also conduct full-day iPad hands-on trainings. I like to believe that, in 1 day, I’ve made a difference in people’s lives!
I’m sure that you have many, but can you share one moment that made you realize that you could make a difference?
Just recently, I entertained a visit from a 25 year old gal, Ripsi, from Armenia, and her father and 1-on-1. They were clueless about technology, even dad. I introduced them to my ‘big 3’: TV control, music control, and telephone control, all by a switch/button I positioned next to Ripsi’s right cheek. When dad was having trouble implementing all this, I travelled to their home, at no charge, and spent several hours with them. They had a special dinner for me with their extended family to ‘honor’ my visit. It was very heartwarming!
Anything exciting coming up for you that you’d like to share?
As I age, my individual successes mean more and more to me. So a pat on the back, handshake, “Job well done,” mean more to me than a “sale.” When I get great feedback, I feel great about my work.
But as far as projects, I am working on a way for the iPad and iPhone to control entertainment devices, by switch or other alternative device, and also to control appliances and switch-adapted toys, all in a user interface understandable by those still learning about life.
Another project is an online *very* simple email website that is like Facebook for disabled persons. Interested parties can participate for free at I Can Email Online.
What words of inspiration and hope can you give to parents with children who have special needs?
Do “something!” Something is always better than nothing. Even if it’s just switch control of your TV, do it now! There’s no excuse, with people like me (and there are a few others) that offer things that can change lives right now and are very affordable. Change a life today!
How can people reach out to you?
1-800-RJCooper (I answer my own phone) or via email at rj [at] rjcooper [dot] com.
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