Speech professor Al Cook receives international computing award

29 June 2010

Albert Cook, PhD, didn't become interested in rehabilitation medicine until the late '70s, when his son was born with a severe intellectual disability.

"I started off in electrical engineering and I probably would still be in electrical engineering rather than rehab if it hadn't been for Brian," says the professor in speech pathology and audiology at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Now, more than three decades later, Cook is receiving the 2010 SIGACESS Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computing and Accessibility, an international award in recognition of his lifelong dedication to the research and development of assistive devices and computing technology for persons with disabilities.

Even though his own son is now an adult, Cook still takes a special interest in children. His recent research with interdisciplinary teams is focused on the effects robot use has on cognitive and language development in children who have disabilities.

"The interesting thing about working with children is that you get to discover their potential and get to help them develop their abilities," he says.

He explains that for children with severe disabilities, the use of robotics provides an opportunity for them to explore and demonstrate what they understand in a way that wouldn't be possible without the use of technology. While using a robotic arm during play, for example, differences in a child's responsiveness, amount of vocalization, and appearance of interest were noted.

But Cook's work encompasses far more than just working with children. The former dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine has Canadian and foreign patents, more than 200 scientific publications, and is often a keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He also works on establishing the Faculty's international connections by teaming up with foreign researchers, which he thinks enriches U of A students' educational experience by showing them perspectives to which they wouldn't otherwise be exposed.

Cook also co-authored a textbook popular in occupational therapy programs, Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice. This book has been translated into several different languages including Chinese and Korean-the book's far reach still surprises him.

"When you sit in a little office like this and you write, you never think anybody's really going to read it and then when you find out that people from faraway places actually make use of it-it's nice," he says.

Cook will undoubtedly come across someone who has read his reference book when he speaks at ASSETS 2010, a conference on computers and accessibility put on by SIGACCESS in Orlando, Fla. this October.

He plans to focus on the ways that technology has impacted computer use for people with disabilities and some of the things people are doing to make computers more accessible for people who have disabilities.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.