What is a Rehab Engineer and Why Do You Need One?
The Rehabilitation Professional
January / February / March 2007 - page 33
Gary Downey is a partner with Ergo-Online an Ergo-Online training and
consulting firm and a Rehabilitation Engineer with The Coalition For
Independence a Kansas City- based Independent Living Center. Gary has been
providing "extreme ergonomics" solutions for over 10 years.
"So, what do you do?"
It's a common question asked often at parties and social gatherings. Most of
the time we expect to hear things like, "Oh, I work at the bank" or
"I'm a mechanic at the Ford dealership." When I tell people that. I'm
a Rehab Engineer, I often see this bewildered look come across the person's
face, followed by (depending on the crowd) either an "Oh, what's
that?" or a "That's nice" as the person tries to catch the eye
of the local librarian.
Rather than launch into a tirade against the Dewey Decimal System, let me
take a shot at answering the first question. That way at the next church
potluck, I can whip out this little article and say "Here's a well-written
article that discusses just that subject. Pass the green bean casserole,
What is a Rehab Engineer?
A Rehabilitation, or Rehab, Engineer uses theories of math, science, and
engineering to design, develop, adapt, apply, and evaluate solutions to
barriers met by people with disabilities. At least that's what the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 says.
I like to think of Rehab Engineers as practicing "extreme
ergonomics:" Rehab Engineering is to ergonomics as the X-Games are to the
Olympics. Both do similar types of things, hut the venues are radically
Between ourselves and every task we do lies sonic sort of interface that
helps us accomplish that task. This interface takes many different forms, more
than we have time to mention today. A few interface examples might be a
computer mouse, a doorknob, a telephone, a screwdriver, a light switch, or a
blender. Most of us don't give much thought to using these interfaces. We just
use them. For someone with a disability, however, these interfaces can present
a huge barrier to the task they wish to accomplish. That's where assistive
technology comes into play.
What is Assistive Technology?
For most of us technology makes things easier. For people with a disability,
technology makes things possible. That's what assistive technology is all about
- utilizing a device, product, or system to increase the functional
capabilities of someone with a disability. Assistive technology is commonly
used to improve mobility, written and verbal communication, hearing, vision,
independent living, educational access, and tasks associated with employment,
among many others. Sound cool? It is!
What Does a Rehab Engineer Have To Do With All This?
Yes, I'm getting to that. Over the last 20 years assistive technology has
become more commercially available. Manufacturers have popped up all over the
place offering a wide variety of solutions to overcome barriers. In fact, when
I Googled "assistive technology" over 3.6 million results were
returned. The bad news is: There are still needs out there that aren't being
met by manufacturers generally because the market is too small to justify the
investment in product development. if only there was a place to go when there
was no commercial solution.
Wait a minute! That's whit Rehab Engineers are for! (Ah the point!)
Back before there were so many assistive technology manufacturers, it was
commonplace to have a Rehab Engineer around to provide custom solutions to
barriers met by people with disabilities. Rehab Engineers are a little harder
to find these days with all of the budget cutbacks and funding changes, but
they can be extremely useful when you have a tough situation.
Even if you don't need a totally custom solution, Rehab Engineers can he
handy resources since they do their best to stay up to date on new offerings in
assistive technology across a wide variety of areas. They also have a close
family-like network of peers across the country in which questions are posed
and ideas for solutions are freely offered up. Sometimes it feels almost like
Sometimes you have a consumer who might be having difficulty using a
computer mouse at work, so you get him/her a trackball or Renaissance Mouse.
The barrier is removed, the consumer is happy, and you call it a day. Good job.
Then, there are those cases in which the consumer might be having trouble
using a computer mouse in her job because she has degenerative disk disease or
severely low blood pressure that causes her to black out when she sits upright.
Maybe a trackball isn't the answer this time. That's when you can contact a
Rehab Engineer to help you figure out how to provide a functional solution to
help keep this person gainfully employed and satisfied.
In fact, at the last annual conference of the Rehabilitation Engineering and
Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA for short-thank goodness)
there were solutions presented to two cases similar to the one I've just
mentioned. In case you are wondering, one solution involved a supine-lying
workstation and the other a prone-lying workstation. Both were well designed
and quite impressive.
Other solutions you missed included an accessible wheelchair camera mount
for a photographer with quadriplegia, a trackball mounting system for a
wheelchair, a joystick controlled microscope for a geologist, an automatic
movie ticket cutter, and a wheelchair-mounted industrial shop floor sweeper -
just to name a few! But you don't have to wait until the outstanding RESNA
conference in June to pick a Rehab Engineer's brain. They are out there waiting
to help you with those tough consumers. You know the ones.
How Do I Find A Rehab Engineer?
Your best bet of finding a Rehab Engineer is to start with the
RESNA website. Their website contains a
Directory of Certified Rehabilitation Engineering Technologists (RETs) and
Assistive Technology Practitioners (ATPs). Their Professional Organization page
has links to the Special Interest Groups (also called SIGs) in case you are
interested in a specific area of assistive technology such as Job
Accommodations or Computer Applications. The Professional Development page on
the RESNA website has a list, of university-based programs that would provide
you with access to professors, researchers, and students (for larger design
projects). Of course, if you are a RESNA member, you'll get access to the
on-line RESNA directory that can help pinpoint the closest Rehab Engineer to
RESNA also runs an assistive technology forum via email. Contact the RESNA
office if you are interested in signing up for this free listserv. You'd be
surprised to find out just how accessible and approachable the true assistive
technology experts are to you.
You can also approach your local university (especially if they have
programs in biomedical, mechanical, or electrical engineering) to determine if
there are any Rehab Engineering type resources. And, I would be amiss not to
mention also contacting your state's vocational rehabilitation department or
disability specific organization since a few have their very own Rehab
Engineers. Along these same lines, your local Independent Living Center may
know of a Rehab Engineer in the area (or if they are really lucky, they might
even have one on staff).
Where Can I Find Out More About Assistive Technology?
In case you'd like to learn more about this assistive technology stuff
before you contact your friendly neighborhood Rehab Engineer, but don't feel
like sifting through 3.6 million Google hits, here are a few good places to
start your general learning:
The RESNA website's
RehabEngineer, or the
ATWiki run by Georgia
Tech's Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access (CATEA) as
part of AssistiveTech.Net. You can also check out the
links page on
Ergo-Online for additional resources.
Are We Done Yet?
Oh, no. You are only just beginning your assistive technology journey. Those
three websites are only the tip of the iceberg. There are tremendous ideas and
resources out there waiting to help people with disabilities accomplish the
things most of us take for granted. All we have to. do is match them up. A
Rehab Engineer can help.
Pass the green bean casserole, please.
Old RESNA homepage
New RESNA homepage