Ziggi Landsman: The Making of a Tech Advocate

zlandsman-circa-1980
Landsman adjusts a reciprocating gait orthosis circa 1980.

If anyone ever writes a book about Zen and the art of SCI technology, they’d be hard pressed to find a better guiding philosophy than the one espoused by United Spinal’s tech guru Ziggi Landsman. Whether he has been evaluating people for wheelchairs, designing custom solutions or running one of the industry’s key web sites, Landsman, United Spinal’s vice president of assistive technology, has been on the cutting edge of SCI technology for over four decades. He says the key to success is simple:

“Don’t focus on technology. Don’t assume there is a technology for everything, or that technology is always the solution. Focus on the person – it’s the person you are looking at who will make it happen, not the technology.”

Hand-Picked from the Pile

Long before Landsman was attaching gadgets to wheelchairs and discussing the finer points of different drive systems, he was just another Bronx kid looking for work. At 20, he had already driven a cab, worked in a law office and was about to join a phone company when he heard the VA was hiring. The office was just across the street from where he grew up, and he decided to apply to be an orthotist, even though he didn’t know what it was.

“They actually picked me out of the pile for this job,” he says. “The program director took me under his wing and said, ‘We’re going to throw you into a world of SCI, and you may like that and you may not. After six months, either you stay or you go.’”

Landsman ended up staying for 20 years. He went from thinking SCI stood for science fiction to becoming one of the advocates veterans trusted most when they needed a solution or someone to fight for their medical claims.

United Spinal President Paul Tobin was one of thousands of people Landsman evaluated and worked with. He still remembers the patience and respect with which Landsman conducted his first seating evaluation.

“He has a practical understanding and appreciation for what technology can do for somebody, as well as what inappropriate technology can do to their detriment,” says Tobin. “Above all, he is passionate and he really cares that people get the right things.”

That passion translated to a number of strong relationships with the veterans he worked with, including a number of high profile members of Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (now United Spinal). In 1992, EPVA Executive Director Jim Peters hired Landsman away from the VA to run clinics, advocate for patients and direct EPVA’s burgeoning assistive technology program.

USA TechGuide

When Ziggi Landsman dreamed up Tech-Guide back in the early days of the World Wide Web, he saw it as a helpful resource that would bring users to the United Spinal (then EPVA) website. Thirteen years later, USA TechGuide (www.usatechguide.org) does much more than drive traffic to United Spinal — it has become one of the net’s leading aggregators of assistive technology reviews and resources and an Internet hub for the SCI/D community.

User reviews are the heart of TechGuide. Over the last 13 years, thousands of people have submitted reviews of hundreds of wheelchairs, scooters and other devices. Using the site’s easy-to-search setup, you can find equipment that fits your needs and then see how reviewers rated it on durability, ease of use, how it met expectations and overall. Most reviews also contain extensive comments on strengths and weaknesses. TechGuide covers all types of mobility devices and other adaptive gear.

While you are checking out the reviews, make sure to click on Landsman’s Wheelchair Diffusion blog (www.usatechguide.org/blog). The blog is a collection of fun and interesting links, news and more from the world of SCI/D, curated by Landsman. Also, make sure to check the Life in Action archives (www.spinalcord.org/life-in-action/digital-archive) for our TechGuide column where we tracked down some of the reviewers to provide expanded looks at different product categories.

Early Tech Advocacy

At EPVA, Landsman brought his wealth of experience in technology and the voice of a strong consumer-first advocate. “I was pretty good at pressing the VA’s buttons,” he says. “I could get them to react, and EPVA needed that. They had no one who specialized in what you would call assistive technology benefits for veterans. They needed somebody to fight a battle for a vet to get a certain technology, and they really didn’t have that expertise on board.”

Long before he became United Spinal’s president, Tobin worked long hours with Landsman driving up and down the east coast, working to convince hospitals and insurers that patients needed the right equipment.

“You could always be sure he was trying to do the right thing,” Tobin says.

Landsman remembers that period of his career as a war. “We fought battles every day, somewhere, at some VA hospital in any one of eight or nine states,” he recalls.

In 2000, Landsman parlayed his fascination with the nascent world wide web into a new, consumer-oriented website called TechGuide (see sidebar). His plan was to offer consumers a forum to share reviews of wheelchairs, scooter and other assistive technology. With help from his tech-savvy sons, Landsman learned the basics of web programming and launched the page in hopes of boosting traffic to EPVA’s site.

The response was overwhelming. TechGuide eventually became one of the key portals to EPVA’s web page and built a cadre of loyal followers.

Tobin credited Landsman’s “brutal honesty” with making the site a success.

“He was really our first real venture online with TechGuide,” Tobin says. “It was the first time that we knew of where someone offered a user perspective, a caregiver perspective and a clinician perspective where it is basically unbiased ‘This is what I think of my wheelchair.’ That has been quite a resource for the community over time. There still aren’t many other sites like that.”

The Human Touch

Landsman still oversees TechGuide in his current role as United Spinal’s vice president of assistive technology,
but he is no longer involved with evaluations or much of the direct consumer work he did for so long.

He misses the interaction with consumers some of his earlier roles afforded him, but he still reaps rewards
from the many people he helped.

“There’s a really close tie between some of us,” he says. “I look at somebody and I can remember them lying in a bed during rehab – even Paul Tobin.”

Looking back on over 40 years in the field, Landsman can speak eloquently about the changes in the ways technology and SCI interact.

“Today’s people with SCI are much more aware and much more knowledgeable of what’s out there,” he says. “They may not be more knowledgeable about what will work for them, but they’re certainly more aware of the newer technologies.”
Landsman found success helping people discern what would work for them by starting with his clients and their needs instead of focusing on the technology.

“Technology can only be applied — it’s the person who uses it,” he says. “I can attach 1,000 different things to your wheelchair, but at the end of the day it’s how well can you use them and do you want to use them?”