Alumni Profiles

Jose Ernesto (Ernie) Hernandez (PE), M.S.E. '77

Founder of Rehab Engineering Inc. uses Talents to Help those with Disabilities

Jose E Hernandez

After graduating from Texas A&M University-Kingsville in 1972 with a BS in Electrical Engineering, Jose E. Hernandez was hired at Texas Instruments in Austin. After spending two years, working long hours, Hernandez realized that he needed a greater balance between work and his social life, so he began volunteering with blind and deaf children.

His volunteer work with the children began by helping with their daily activities: feeding and cleaning. During a conversation with a teacher about the challenges she faced in teaching children with disabilities, Hernandez soon discovered a place to demonstrate his engineering talents and found he really enjoyed designing and manufacturing learning aids.

He quit working at Texas Instruments and was interested in finding a way to combine his interests: engineering and helping the disabled community.

In 1975, Hernandez contacted Professor AJ Welch, who was overseeing the BME graduate program at The University of Texas at Austin at the time, applied, and was accepted to the program.

"Dr. Welch asked me write a grant to the NSF, to do engineering work with the disabled children, to bring that type of education and research to the BME Department."

Even though he did not win the grant, Hernandez worked with Professor Robert C. Eberhart in a master's program, where his research took him to Buffalo, New York, to experiment and test an invasive method to quantify the myocardial arterial blood flow rate during open-heart surgery. A qualitative visual assessment of the color of the heart after by-pass surgery proved to be an inadequate metric of the thoroughness of the operation. A percentage of patients were experiencing significant cardiac problems post-op. However, a second major operation so close to the first posed serious, life-threatening risks. Using a thermistor probe (temperature sensitive resistor), Hernandez developed a math model to correlate the temperature differentials to blood flow. The intent was to give the surgeon a quantifiable tool to assess his work (restoring ample blood flow) before closing the patient's chest.

After graduation, Hernandez continued working on his open heart surgery research along with Dr. H. Frederick Bowman at MIT, who was doing similar work.

With popularity of the PC growing, Hernandez returned to Texas and was hired at a school in Port Arthur, Texas, with the idea of designing a system to help disabled children communicate with each other, teachers and the staff. He designed a network using 15 Apple computers connected to one server, which was an accomplishment in 1981. The system allowed teachers and children to communicate through various methods tailored to various degrees of disability, including unique keyboards, Morse code entry and scanning software.

After meeting his wife and having a child of his own, Hernandez went back to a well-paying job with benefits. He spent the next 15 years working for traditional engineering companies and high-volume manufacturing. The last company he worked for, Nortel Networks in San Antonio, closed when the tech bubble burst in 2001. Fortunately, the company provided ample resources, which allowed Hernandez to start his own business.

Hernandez remembered how rewarding the work with the disabled population had been as he applied his engineering skills to solve pressing problems. After researching the disabled community in central Texas, Hernandez started Rehab Engineering Inc. on September 11, 2001. His company, headquartered in San Antonio, is responsible for rehabilitating people with disabilities to help them live and work more comfortably, productively and independently.

Many of his clients include veterans returning from war with disabilities and brain trauma. One veteran returned from war with a condition known as visual neglect. The individual no longer looked to his left, because his brain no longer registered that anything to his left even existed! Using an off-the-shelf MP3 player, Hernandez re-programmed it to periodically prompt the veteran to look to his left. The MP3 player proved more successful than conventional occupational therapy modalities and drew less attention, for an already self-conscious patient, than the suggested adaptive goggles.

Hernandez meets with his clients to assess their strengths and weaknesses and in most cases develops solutions using existing technologies and materials rather than inventing his own. He has done extensive work helping clients become more productive on computers using new methods such as voice recognition, and has helped them to use keyboards in unconventional ways.

One of his most recent cases involved the filtering and tweaking of voice signals from a cerebral palsy college student in order to make them more acceptable to standard voice recognition programs. Poor motor control resulted in slow keyboard use and inconsistent slurred, drawn-out speech. Because the patient spoke slowly, the voice recognition software couldn't decipher what he was saying. Hernandez used audio instrumentation from a local music store to modulate and massage his voice so that the voice recognition software could recognize what the patient was saying. In one afternoon, the patient went from less than 5% accuracy to over 80%! Presently, the patient uses a computer to do everything from writing college term papers to communicating more effectively with others.

From his work, Hernandez feels that working with disabled populations is an area poised for growth in the biomedical engineering field.

"Biomedical engineers work closely with physicians, which is good," Hernandez said. "But there is a world of opportunity for engineers to help and serve in these peripheral professions as well, such as with occupational, physical, and speech therapists. They're looking for solutions and we can provide them."