SHRS brings wheelchair mobility conference back to Pittsburgh

Wheelchair for tough terrain


The International Seating Symposium (ISS) — billed as the world’s largest wheelchair mobility conference — is back in Pittsburgh.

The Continuing Education Program in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology is hosting the ISS here — where the symposium began — for the first time in 20 years.

ISS director Mark R. Schmeler, a department faculty member and its vice chair for education and training, says the event, which draws 2,500 attendees from around the world, brings together researchers and design experts with manufacturers, insurers, government officials and the public. It features 140 courses taught by mobility experts, as well as hands-on training and more than 130 displays of the latest mobility technology.

The event began March 18 with pre-symposium workshops and ends March 22.

Pitt has hosted the conference every other year since 1995, alternating with the University of British Columbia, but the conference site soon moved to Florida and then Nashville. This year it is at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Pitt’s hosting duties include managing the conference; putting together all the programs; calling for, reviewing and accepting conference papers; and coordinating the venue, hotel, transportation and food.

“It’s like launching a rocket and making sure it gets where you want it to be without blowing up,” Schmeler says, but then adds: “We’re now hoping to keep it here long-term.”

The event remains vital, he says. In 1959, one of 1,000 people used a wheelchair or other mobility device. Today, that number is one of 100.

“We have a population that is aging,” he says. “Mobility as you’re aging becomes a problem and results in lots of secondary problems,” including injuries from falls and other medical consequences. Mobility equipment that is not properly prescribed or used can result in sores or injuries or even loss of function; worse, people with inadequate equipment may choose to abandon its use.

The conference focuses on creating mobility equipment that is custom-fitted to different body types, made from lighter materials and works in many different environments and modes of transportation. On the frontiers of mobility are brain-controlled wheelchairs, and, eventually, self-driving power wheelchairs.

“We all share with one another our strategies for moving this forward,” Schmeler says. 

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859