What is Rehabilitation Engineering?


From RESNA 2008

What is Rehabilitation Engineering?

Rehabilitation engineering is the use of engineering principles to provide technology solutions to problems confronted by people with disabilities.

For most of us, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible. Rehabilitation engineers use devices and other materials to increase the functional capabilities of someone with a disability. Rehabilitation engineers can use technology to improve mobility, written and verbal communication, hearing, vision, independent living, educational access, recreational access, and tasks associated with employment, among many others. Technology that is used to help increase functional capabilities is often called assistive technology.

What do Rehabilitation Engineers do?

Rehabilitation Engineers play many roles.
  • They may suggest commercially available devices to solve a problem for a person with a disability. For example, a rehabilitation engineer assisting a worker who uses a wheelchair, might choose commercially available components to set up an ergonomically accessible workstation with adjustable height desks and tables and repositioned computer monitor and keyboard as a job accommodation. A rehabilitation engineer working in a rehabilitation center with a woman with limited movement might recommend electronic aids to daily living for her to activate appliances and lights in her kitchen.

  • They adapt and customize technology and fabricate unique solutions to fit the needs of an individual with a disability. For example, a rehabilitation engineer working in a school system with a preschooler with limited movement in his legs might adapt a battery operated toy car so that it can be driven with hand controls rather than foot pedals. Another rehab engineer working at a resource center might fabricate a wheelchair camera mount for an amateur photographer who uses a wheelchair.

  • They may develop new technologies and new products to solve a problem encountered by people with disabilities. For example, rehabilitation engineers have invented voice activated systems to operate cell phones and PDAs. Rehabilitation engineers have also invented wheelchair mounted power supply system that takes power from the wheelchair batteries to provide back-up power for a ventilator.

  • They may test devices and products for consumer safety and compliance with state, federal and international standards. For example, rehabilitation engineers working for independent testing laboratories conduct stress, performance and failure analysis tests to determine the structural integrity of wheelchairs. They might also analyze the safety of wheelchair tie down systems in vehicles using crash test dummies.

Rehabilitation engineers complement the work of other professionals, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists. They bring the unique engineering perspective to problem solving, providing technical assistance with technical systems and solutions that commonly fall beyond clinicians.

Training and background of a rehabilitation engineer

While some rehabilitation engineers have master's degrees in rehabilitation engineering, most rehabilitation engineers have undergraduate or graduate degrees in biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering. Their university training includes formal training in principles of design, ergonomics, biomechanics, mechanical and electrical systems, material sciences and life sciences. They also gain an understanding of the functional capabilities and prognosis of people with various disabilities.

For more information

RESNA, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, is the main professional society for rehabilitation engineers. Call them at 703/524-6686.

Other affiliations of engineers include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES).


Professional Organization

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