An Innovative Interdisciplinary Program: Rehabilitation Engineering Technology
The United States currently faces a shortage of rehabilitation professionals with expertise in engineering technology. The need for rehabilitation engineering technicians, in particular, has been recognized in the wake of new legislation that ensures the civil rights of persons with disabilities and highlights a need for their improved access to rehabilitation services and assistive devices. Responding to this national need, Vermont Technical College (VTC) was the first educational institution in the country to offer an associate's degree program in Rehabilitation Engineering Technology. The curriculum, which focuses on applied science, production, problem-solving and assistive technology modification, promises to produce skilled technicians who can offer a range of specialized products and services to persons with disabilities. As an innovative program, VTC's new Rehabilitation Engineering Technology (RET) program has gained national notice and sparked considerable interest. Other institutions interested in establishing similar programs are eager for information about program content and curriculum.
Rehabilitation engineers and other rehabilitation professionals have long provided assistive technology to persons with disabilities (Galvin & McLaurin, 1991). An assistive technology device is "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities" (Public Law 100-819). The use of such devices by persons with disabilities has provided important benefits that increase vocational and independent living opportunities for this population.
The number of individuals needing such services is growing. Over 43 million Americans are classified as disabled. In the last ten years, the number of persons with disabilities pursuing degrees on our nation's campuses has tripled (Rothstein, 1991). The need for assistive technology is ever increasing due to better medical treatment, greater advocacy and increasing independence of those that are physically and mentally challenged. This can be seen in the tremendous increase in the number of service delivery programs throughout the U.S. and an increase in the number of manufacturers of assistive devices.
Rehabilitation Engineering and the Role of the Technician
Rehabilitation engineering is the systematic application of scientific and engineering principles to address the needs of persons with disabilities (McQuistion, 1992; Childress, 1984). Rehabilitation engineering professionals play a vital role in the removal of barriers to employability and independent living opportunities among this population. Through the use of assistive technology, the employability, education, communication, daily functioning, and recreational activities of persons with disabilities are all enhanced.
A very important factor that must be addressed with regard to educational programs for rehabilitation engineering personnel on the rehabilitation team is recognition that a mix of rehabilitation engineers, technologists and technicians is required. The need for such a mix was recognized by the Rehabilitation Engineering Professional Specialty Group of RESNA, The Association for the Advancement of Assistive and Rehabilitative Technologies. Engineers are not the only professionals involved in the delivery of rehabilitation and assistive technology services. To adequately provide all of the rehabilitation engineering services necessary to enhance the employability, education, communication, daily functioning, and recreational activities of people with disabilities, an effective rehabilitation engineering team must include engineers, technologists, and technicians. Rehabilitation engineering technicians are the team members who fabricate and modify equipment based on the work of the engineer or engineering technologist (Dolan, 1992). They also work closely with the other members of the rehabilitation team: therapists, physicians, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and most importantly, consumers and their families.
New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) was the first institution of higher education in the country to develop programs to train technicians. NJIT's program consists of a 63 credit hour academic program leading to a certificate in Rehabilitation Engineering Technology. Vermont Technical College is the only institution in the nation to offer a program leading to a degree of Associate in Engineering in Rehabilitation Engineering Technology.
Vermont Technical College's Program
To assist in the development of the curriculum for the associate's degree program, VTC established a Rehabilitation Engineering Technology Advisory Committee. Committee members chosen to represent professional members of the rehabilitation team, rehabilitation engineers and persons with disabilities who are themselves the users of assistive technology.
The committee worked closely with the faculty at VTC to develop the curriculum shown at the end of this article. The curriculum is interdisciplinary, incorporating traditional courses in computer, electrical and mechanical engineering technology, technical drafting, mathematics, physics and language arts with specialized studies in biomechanics, assistive technology and physical and psychological aspects of disability. The program uses labs, lectures and a design project to help the students strike a balance between communication skills and technical expertise.
Throughout the program, students have frequent opportunities to interact with people who use assistive technology and with the professionals who provide services. To expose students to assistive technology in all of the areas of rehabilitation engineering, two modifications courses are required. Computer Modifications introduces students to specialized access devices, specialized software, augmentative communication devices, devices for the deaf and hard or hearing, devices for persons with low vision, and environmental control. The Home and Mechanical Modifications course introduces the students to seating and positioning, wheeled mobility, robotics, recreation, adaptive driving, and aids for daily living. In this course, students also learn to assess the needs of the person with a disability in both home and work environments and to design or modify devices to facilitate the employability of the person with the disability.
The capstone of the program is the design project. In the fall semester of the second year, VTC faculty work closely with vocational rehabilitation to identify persons with disabilities who would like to work with the students. Students are paired and assigned a client. In their Disabilities Studies course, students are required to spend time with their client and write a paper assessing the disability and identifying the client's needs. Design projects are completed during the modifications courses and may include design and fabrication of a specialized product or modification of a commercially available product.
The program attracts students with a technical and scientific bent who also listen well to people and value the idea of working on an effective team. The first year of the program attracted eight students from varying backgrounds with varying interests. Three of the students are adults, and three are persons with a disability.
First Graduating Class
The program will graduate its first class of students in May. The range of interests of this year's seniors varies widely. Of the five students expected to graduate in May, two will complete a dual degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technology, and one will complete a dual degree with Mechanical Engineering Technology. Students are seeking employment in a variety of areas including seating and positioning, computer modifications, devices for the deaf and hard of hearing, sports and recreation, and the modification of farm equipment.
VTC is widely known for its success in placing all of its graduates. Since 1982, an average of 98% of VTC's graduates have taken jobs within their four months of graduation or have transferred to bachelor's degree programs. The college is also developing an electrical/mechanical technology bachelors degree program which will include a rehabilitation engineering technology option in the near future.
Technology for persons with disabilities has advanced past the gadgeteering of early days. Assistive devices are becoming more and more sophisticated and require the expertise of rehabilitation engineering professionals. The rehabilitation engineering technician, as a member of the rehabilitation team, will play a vital role in the delivery of services to individuals with disabilities. Vermont Technical College's Rehabilitation Engineering Technology program will train technicians with the necessary skills to assess needs, identify problems and devise solutions based on available technology.
Rehabilitation Engineering Technology Curriculum
|Fall Semester||Spring Semester|
|Fall Semester||Spring Semester|
Childress, Dudley S. (1984, September). Rehabilitation Engineering. _Mechanical Engineering_, p. 56-65.
Dolan, Frank A. (1992). Professional Education and Credentialing for Rehabilitation Engineering. _Technology and Disability_,1(3), 6-14.
Galvin, Jan C. & McLaurin, Colin A. (1991, August/September). A History of Rehabilitation Engineering. _REHAB Management_, p. 70-77.
McQuistion, Linda (1992). Rehabilitation Technology: Engineering New Careers in Rehabilitation. _American Rehabilitation_, Summer, pp. 8-9, 34-35.
Rothstein, Laura (1991, September 4). Campuses and the Disabled. _The Chronicle of Higher Education_, pp. B4, B10.
_Technology Assistance Related to People with Disabilities Act of 1988_. Public Law 100-819.