1980s typewriter and red telephone on desk with hat, wallet and glasses

Looking Back: Assistive Technology in the Last Quarter of the 20th Century

Would it surprise you to learn that assistive-technology engineering began long before the age of apps? And long before the Americans with Disabilities Act? And even before computers became household appliances?

My Father the Pioneer

I grew up close to the cutting edge of disability engineering—though, sadly, I had little interest at the time. It may have been when I started high school that I first realized my father’s “industrial engineering” had real-life value. Dad used one of the first home computers in his work, and he let me borrow it to do homework. I was among the first kids to turn in assignments written by word processor.

(Pause for perspective: it was 1983, and even digitally created assignments had to be submitted in hard copy. That “cutting edge” home computer was an Osborne, running WordStar software; and it wouldn’t have stood a chance against today’s “typically abled” expectations, let alone universal-accessibility standards. What you saw during the writing process was a black screen with glaring gold letters, which only approximated what the printout would look like. The only way to enter data was via keyboard; different size and font options were barely conceived; and formatting was limited to inserting “underline” symbols.)

It was several more years before I realized my father was more than an expert on the newest “gadgets.” His industrial-engineering specialty was assistive technology, and he was designing it long before most of the “typically abled” world acknowledged that the need existed. To Dad’s thinking, the purpose of engineering was to serve humanity.

Dad’s Story

(Thanks to my mother, Margaret Swarts, for remembering most of this section for me.)

Portrait of Albert Swarts (gray-haired. clean-shaven white male with broad face, eyeglasses, and broad smile) in business shirt and necktie. Cluster of pens and pencils in his left breast pocket.
Albert E. Swarts, c. 2006.

Albert Edwin “Al” Swarts (1939–2006) began his disability-engineering career in 1971, as a Texas A&M graduate student majoring in what was then called Human Factors Engineering. (In today’s lay language, “human factors” equals “designing for accessibility,” i.e., modifying working and living environments to make them usable by people with disabilities.)

Dad's framed MS degree in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University, 1973.
Dad’s degree in Industrial [Human Factors] Engineering.

Over the following decades, Dad worked as:

  • An equipment designer for TIRR (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research)
  • A part-time engineering teacher at the University of Houston
  • An independent consultant (which included Digital-Navigator-type work showing others how to use their computers)
Inside of card ("Thanks for being a teacher who really cares!") that Dad received from one of his U of H classes. About a dozen students signed it, including sentiments such as "I REALLY enjoyed your courses," "Thanks for taking the time to teach," and "You're pretty good for an Aggie."
Testimonials for “Professor” Swarts’s college teaching.
Bibliographic list (home-computer-printed) showing 12 of Dad's publishing and public-speaking credits from the 1970s and 1980s. Topics include "Principles of Worksite Modifications" and "Design Considerations for Vehicular Modifications to Accommodate the Disabled Driver."
Dad was also an occasional public speaker, technology writer, and expert witness. This is his personal record of what was trending in the engineering world during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1988, he received his own disability diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which caused dexterity and mobility challenges for the rest of his life. He eventually got a scooter, which soon became his favorite assistive technology. It separated into two sections to fit in a vehicle trunk, and also made a few trips by plane. (He would personally show airport staff how to disassemble the scooter for loading. Fortunately, he never completely lost his walking ability, and never had to trust a customized wheelchair to the dubious care of baggage handlers.)

Dad continued working up to his last days. I wish he could see how far assistive technology (and disability rights) have come in the smartphone-apps age.

In His Own Words

In 1999, near the midpoint of his Parkinson’s years, Dad shared the following perspective with his church newsletter:

“It isn’t easy to talk about infirmities. I greatly appreciate the concern [of my friends and family], but I see a difference of opinion in the way I view it and the view of others. [I’d rather people weren’t] talking about my ‘battle’ with Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve spent at least the last twenty-five years of my life working with design of methods and devices for people with disabilities; and if I can’t deal with my own situation, I have no business advising others.

“People ask me, ‘Aren’t you too young to have this “problem”?’ Well, I’m currently teaching a course at Baylor Medical, and one of the students has a spinal injury that ‘sentenced’ him to life in a wheelchair, but he works and drives his pickup to class. And I just finished evaluating a young man, also with a paralyzing spinal injury, who expects to be a motorcycle mechanic. Both these young men broke their necks at about the age of twenty—I’m almost sixty.

“And I have too much to offer to waste time consuming myself with ‘beating’ this ‘thing.’ I do appreciate a heartfelt, ‘How are you,’ but bear with me if I flippantly answer, ‘as well as can be expected.’ Allow me to serve as I feel called.”

In this week after Father’s Day—and beyond—let’s continue honoring fathers and what they can teach us.

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