What is a Rehab Engineer and Why Do You Need One?

Gary Downey
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, please."

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 different, Dude.

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 Christmas.

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 your location.

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 links page, 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.


Professional Organization

Old RESNA homepage

New RESNA homepage