Clinical Assistant Professor
"I'm working with Interactive Telecommunications Program in the NYU Tisch School on a course where occupational therapy and other rehabilitation students, along with Tisch artists and designers, collaborate with computer software engineers on innovative assistive technology."
“My work focuses on assistive technology and ergonomics,” says Anita Perr. “That may sound very science-based but there’s a lot of art in what I do.” Perr is referring to the particular ingenuity that is required of occupational therapists who are involved in engineering. “You need to identify patients’ problems and figure out how to design and build technology that they’ll want to use. That kind of creativity really motivates me.”
Perr’s area of expertise is primarily in working with people who have experienced disabilities due to spinal cord injuries and stroke. She helps them use assistive technology such as computerized equipment and powered wheelchairs in order to compensate for their physical impairments.
She also does workplace ergonomics assessment. “If someone is having a problem at their computer work station - getting back or arm pain for instance - I come in and observe how they’re sitting to see if they need to change the position of their chair, phone or keyboard so that they become more comfortable and don’t develop more injuries over time.”
Perr discovered her interest in assistive technology while working at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Their Rehabilitation Engineering Center was steeped in adaptive equipment and technology and I found myself becoming serious about that kind of work.”
She continues to immerse herself in the exploration of such technology by serving on the board of directors of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, an interdisciplinary group of engineers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, special educators, designers, and technology users who work together to get people with disabilities the equipment they need. Perr also does volunteer work with a nonprofit organization called the Adaptive Design Organization, which builds adaptive equipment for children with disabilities.
“All of the work I do outside NYU finds its way into my classroom,” says Perr. Her students respond by suggesting ideas for new technology.
“I’m working with Marianne Petit at the Interactive Telecommunications Program in the NYU Tisch School on a course where occupational therapy and other rehabilitation students, along with Tisch artists and designers, collaborate with computer software engineers on innovative assistive technology.”
One device the students developed tracks a child’s arm and leg movement and then allows the child to interact with software so they can move images – such as balls - on a video monitor. “The system makes therapy more interesting for kids and allows them to do things they wouldn’t be able to do in real life.”
Another device her students developed is called the Smart Hug. “It’s a vest that fills with air in order to gently squeeze whoever is wearing it. It’s used for children with autism or sensory integration problems. Kids with sensory integration problems may have difficulty in school with academics as well as with social aspects of development like playing with other children. The pressure provided from a device like The Smart Hug helps to organize sensory input and works to calm them. Similar devices are currently used with children but they are more difficult to manage because of the wearing schedule involved. The Smart Hug has a computer interface so the timing of inflation can be pre-programmed. The group developing this device hopes that the student user will be able to control the inflation as she or he is able.”
In addition to the work she does with assistive technology, Perr has a primary responsibility to teach courses on rehabilitation to occupational therapy students. Perr describes her students as “fabulous team members who know what they’re talking about in the clinic. They are also really interested in service and undertake a lot of excellent volunteer work. This makes them thoughtful and caring people, which is why it’s so easy to be around them. Ultimately, they understand the importance of the work they’ll be doing once they finish school. I think that’s exciting.”