Alberto Nieto didn’t expect to get into assistive technology when he was majoring in engineering management. But he found a love for it when he was interning at a rehabilitation institute in San Antonio, Texas.
“It was a really nice job, but it was more on the administrative side of it,” Nieto said. “I saw a friend of mine there with a couple of wheelchairs. So I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Nieto’s friend shared his experience providing assistive technologies for adults and children, and told him about the Master of Rehabilitation Technology program offered by the University of Pittsburgh. The hybrid accelerated program allows students to continue working and to get needed field experience while earning their degree.
Nieto is set to graduate in August; through a partnership with National Seating & Mobility, he has been able to gain real-world experience.
The Pitt program began as a traditional two-year, research-based diploma in the early 1990s. In 2020, the department added the hybrid one-year option so students could choose what best fit their lifestyle and professional goals. The next round of classes will start this fall.
“As a university, we’re trying to be more strategic on how we sustain our institution so that we’re still around in 10 years,” said Mark Schmeler, associate professor and vice chair of education and training in the Rehabilitation Science and Technology department. “We also want to confer meaningful degrees with meaningful employment opportunities.”
Schmeler added that while assistive technology professionals (ATPs) need to be able to interpret research, they don’t necessarily need to be researchers to perform their duties. The blended approach also gives students more time to pursue a career or other interests. Lab sessions are condensed into a two- or three-day weekend.
Currently, ATPs need to have at least 1,000 hours of related work experience over the course of six years to sit for the ATP certification course offered by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, or RESNA. That 1,000 hours increases to 2,000 if the candidate’s bachelors degree is in an unrelated field. Students in the Pitt program complete a 240-hour internship during their summer term and are eligible to sit the exam upon graduation.
“This really aligns it with the other health professions,” Schmeler said. “You graduate, you take your board exam and you get your certification.”
As Nieto navigates his second semester, he said his favorite part is getting to work with real people.
“A lot of things that I see normally at work, I have seen in class as well,” he said. “So that has helped me out to find a really good balance.”
The current industry average age for an ATP is 53, and most are white and male. As Schmeler took over the program, he saw the industry approaching a cliff if younger people didn’t come on board. The program needed to appeal to millennials and Generation Z, and to more women and people of color. He has made that his mission, even going into the local community to tell high school kids about the health care opportunities available beyond nursing or medical school.
But real change will only come, Schmeler said, if the industry and academica are able to recruit displaced manufacturing and other workers who want to do more.
“It’s finding good students and giving them phenomenal opportunities,” he said. “The steel mill closed. It’s not coming back. It aligns with the university’s mission of diversity and inclusion and social justice. The fact that 95% of ATPs are white middle-aged males is a problem.”
Female enrollment in advanced degree programs has exceeded that of males since 1988, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2017, women made up 57% of all masters degree and Ph.D. programs. However, most women—like their male counterparts—pursued business management degrees; education, social work or counseling and nursing followed closely behind. Meanwhile, the second highest advanced degree for men was in the engineering field, according to a 2018 study by gograd.org.
While reaching women is important, Schmeler said, there’s also a need for ATPs who speak languages other than English. Very few ATPs speak Spanish, the second most common language in the United States. Pitt’s 2020 class had 10 students, including six women. Nieto is a native Spanish speaker—the only one in the group.
In his current position, Nieto often gets asked to translate.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “Clients can express themselves better with me.”
Schmeler said that he had to pitch the program to university leadership, and as he was explaining the need for ATPs and better certification in the industry, “it’s almost like their jaws dropped.” The dean of the school of dentistry realized an ATP could help keep his 90-year-old mother safe at home—and cut down on emergency trips for him to see her when she fell.
He added that when talking with his own patients about bringing an ATP into a discussion about mobility or other needs, many ask what degree the ATP has or what school they attended.
As the profession moves to being recognized as a certified health profession, he said, there’s an opportunity to gain respect from health systems.
“No one knows who we are or what we do; but they also do see the negative side of it,” he said. “People still bring up the Scooter Store regarding waste, fraud and abuse. So we’re trying to build the profession and the demand is going to be pretty high.”
Meeting a Need
Seniors want to stay home. Baby boomers, especially—who have watched their parents suffer in institutional care—do not want to move into facilities.
“What’s the best way to keep a customer happy in their home? It’s called assistive technology,” said Schmeler. “Whether it’s seating and mobility, home adaptations, smart objects automation, telehealth or all of the above. And there’s no reason why that can’t work.” But, he added, people don’t know about it.
Schmeler envisions a time when ATPs have expanded their expertise beyond complex rehab technology. These would be contracted by health plans to help keep people in their homes. Building trust and professionalizing the industry will help reach that goal.
For the Future
Pitt’s program can currently train 20 to 25 students online, with the capacity expected to double in the coming years. Schmeler said there are currently some 600 vacancies across the industry for certified ATPs.
“There’s no way one university can meet that [demand],” he said; he would love to see other universities embrace the same model and create their own programs.
Schmeler had some advice for ATPs working today, as well.
“You’re the professors of the new generation and you don’t have to feel intimidated by this,” he said. “These students are not going to take your job away from you.”
And of course, business owners shouldn’t shy away from a job candidate with a master’s degree, he added. The starting salary averages $60,000—the same as a newly minted physical or occupational therapist.