As a pediatric occupational therapist, Matt Brewer equips kids with the tools needed to function in their everyday lives. But devices that make learning and playing possible for children with decreased cognitive or physical abilities often can be expensive, or simply nonexistent.
“I think it’s just important to help every kiddo be able to play and have fun and do what they want to do,” Brewer said. “I want to make everything accessible to everybody.”
In December, Brewer graduated from Cox College with a master’s degree in occupational therapy. He’s one of 20 students in the program’s first graduating class.
As part of the innovations and technology course, graduates are required to invent a product to solve a problem patients face or create an inexpensive version of an existing technology.
Students’ inventions assist in a variety of functions – say for people with limited use of their arms to put on a bra, play jump rope, tee a golf ball and use their eyes to move a mouse on the computer, said Amy Vaughan, department chairwoman for Cox College’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy.
“Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I wish someone would think of something to make this better,’ they’re thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t that someone be me?’” she said.
The master’s program began in 2015 after CoxHealth approached the college about the community’s need for occupational therapists, Vaughan said. Today, 26 students are enrolled, with another cohort of 28 starting in August.
Associate professor Dustin Cox teaches the innovations course designed by fellow professor April Swanson. He said the hands-on curriculum shows students how to creatively problem solve using trial and error. At the end of the class, they display their final product at a fair event. The second class of students in the master’s program will share designs for their products at a public forum on May 10 at Cox College.
“We have a day where we just put a bunch of items on the table and say, ‘Start creating stuff,’” Cox said. “Initially (students) are always nervous. … By the night of the showcase, they are really proud of the project they made.”
Working at TheraCare Outpatient Services LLC in Springfield, Brewer is able to use low- and high-tech devices he’s created to help his patients – and he tries to be as cost effective as possible.
For example, he modified computer and smart device controllers, which usually cost hundreds of dollars, into new devices using a $15 Bluetooth keyboard and a $15 pack of buzzers from Amazon.
“I’m all about making therapy materials affordable where everyone is able to buy them, to make them,” Brewer said. “It’s rewarding with all the time we put into this stuff just to have somebody smile.”
Vaughan said creating affordable versions of existing tech is crucial because often these items are not covered by insurance.
“Practitioners are then collaborating with students to say, ‘Here’s a need we have in the clinic; think on that.’ Then we have our students thinking on it and coming up with better, cost-effective solutions,” she said.
Cox said the course is important in preparing students to become practitioners because every patient has unique needs.
Current student Chris Trout is presenting an adjustable easy reader at the May 10 fair. He said children with Autism, for instance, or those with low vision have trouble focusing when reading.
Existing reading guides help people follow along in a book one line at a time. Trout noticed that none of the cutout window models allow for the viewing space to be adjusted to accommodate different font sizes.
“I took a break and got a snack and I made a sandwich, and for some reason, a Ziploc bag looked like a good idea,” he said.
The seal on the bag reminded him of railroad tracks. He glued the top of a Ziploc bag along the edges of laminated cardstock, allowing the user to adjust the size of the viewing window.
He calculated that this device costs less than $3 to make.
Trout hasn’t had the opportunity to see a patient use his device, but he hopes to when he starts fieldwork next month.
“To see a parent’s reaction, ‘Wow my kid read a paragraph today when he hasn’t been able to read two words,’” he said. “(That) would be the ultimate reward.”
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