In 1978, the North Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation established an engineering unit within the department to make modifications to homes, work sites, and vehicles that would help the handicapped lead more productive lives. Staff at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation found that the aids and prostheses available to stroke or accident victims often did not give them the ability to move about or perform simple functions, such as dialing a telephone. Barriers such as steps, narrow doorways, or uneven outside terrain could prevent the handicapped from entering or leaving homes, schools, and factories. Impaired manual dexterity could hinder their driving a car. Rehabilitation Engineering Program (REP) has helped connect the creative solutions of engineers with the challenges faced by disabled people. The result has been an improvement in the quality of life of approximately 380 clients per year since the program's start in 1979.
REP consists of four engineers and a fabricator who cooperate in designing and building devices to make it easier for the handicapped to become independent. Each engineer is assigned to a geographic region of the State, receiving about ten referrals a month from the department's counselors. They visit clients in their homes and offices, talk with family members and employers, and create solutions specific to each client. These highly qualified engineers are unique in that they have a firm human service orientation and a deep commitment to facilitating the lives of people with disabilities.
REP's major innovation has been the introduction of engineering into the vocational rehabilitation process. Typically, rehabilitation engineering has been viewed in a narrow way, associated with research and equipment design only. REP took the problem-solving techniques of engineers into the field to work on the problems disabled people face in their homes and at their places of work. Sometimes the solutions have turned out to be straightforward and repetitious, other times, the invention of new equipment is required. The engineers have modified wheelchairs for cerebral palsy victims, designed hand controls for automobiles and lifts for vans, and built ramps for wheelchair patients.
One remarkable REP success story is of Delbert Yates, a sixty-year-old laryngectomy patient. All that Mr. Yates needed in order to be functional in a work setting was a portable air purifier that would insure that he could breath safely in any environment--a device that did not exist. The engineer who worked with Mr. Yates devised a groundbreaking prototype that allowed him to return to his former occupation of working construction. The filter/humidifier system fits onto Mr. Yates' tracheostoma and is light enough for him to wear around his neck. Another remarkable innovation, a mobile testing device fashioned from junkyard parts, measures how much power assistance a client needs to drive a car. Roy Clayton, an engineer who has been with the program since the beginning, designed a special harness to help a muscular dystrophy patient lift himself in the bathroom.
REP has bolstered the productivity and independence of disabled people around North Carolina. But more importantly, REP has empowered people beyond their physical disabilities and allowed them to engage in the life activities they enjoy and value.