OT at School: An Interview with Suzanne Sanchez (‘96)

Suzanne SanchezSuzanne Sanchez is a senior director of therapy services at the New York City Department of Education, which is responsible for providing necessary services to students with disabilities from more than 600 schools. An NYU Department of Occupational Therapy alum, Sanchez’s work centers around policy development related to occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and assisted technology services within the public school system, which serves almost 35,000 students that require occupational therapy and about 15,000 who need physical therapy services. In an interview with SpOTlight, Sanchez talks about her journey to an administrative role at the Department of Education and the diverse and challenging roles of occupational therapists in the public school system.

Could you give an example of how you have shaped policy that connects students to occupational or physical therapy services? How do you know that a public school student might need them?

One of the things we do is determine what services should be provided to support the students that need them and decide which is the best service, whether it is occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy. We develop an individualized teaching program for the student and guidelines around the criteria for providing these services. We assign a therapist to work with the student and they, along with supervisors, determine an intervention plan for each case. We have a staff of more than 1,200 OTs and PTs, more than 2,000 speech therapists, and we provide professional development to them on school-based practice interventions.

How is the therapy administered? Is it tied to the school curriculum and given in the school itself?

Yes. The majority of the services are administered in schools themselves. We do have some kids who may receive services at home if they are homeschooled or are in a homeschool situation because of an injury. But more than 90 percent of our services are provided in school and they are provided in a therapy room or directly in the classroom, which we call the natural environment so the therapist can work to support the student exactly where their disability is impacting them.

Could you give an example of the kind of OT services a student may need or receive in a classroom setting?

Let’s say a student has cerebral palsy and has a physical disability where they have what we call hemiparesis, that student may need support while typing on a keyboard, holding a pen or a pencil, sitting upright in a chair, or moving around the school environment and participating in gym or lunch room with their peers. An OT, PT, or speech therapist would go and assess the student’s level of functioning and evaluate where the student might need support and how the support can be provided. Much of our work is focused on ensuring that students with disabilities participate with their non-disabled peers so that they are not separate or segregated. A therapist can help the student by either using adaptive equipment to increase mobility, work on speech and language production so they are able to communicate with their peers, or use an assisted technology device so that a student can communicate and socialize with their peers if they have limited communication skills.

What makes working in a school system unique or different from other occupational therapy settings?

I think one of the things working in the school system offers is exposure and the opportunity to work with children with all kinds of disabilities. I have worked with children who have neurological or physical and cognitive impairments, autism, spina bifida, and those with intellectual disabilities – pretty much anything you can think of. I think that working in the school system poses a unique set of challenges and there are a wide variety of disabilities that a therapist is expected to support. It’s not like an outpatient setting where you’re working with primarily hip and knee replacements, or an in-patient facility where you will see patients who have had a stroke or neurological injury. A school-based service is much more subjective and encompasses a much wider of range of disabilities in a broad age range. A therapist here works with students ranging from preschool to 12th grade.

Today, there are many career tracks for occupational therapy students, especially therapists who want to work with children. There’s pre-school setting, clinical setting, sensory integration specialties, and certainly now needs that are related to autism. There are tremendous opportunities out there for therapists interested in OT and assisted technologies.

What drew you to occupational therapy and the program at NYU?

I had worked in a group home for young adults with autism during undergraduate school and it was there that I was first exposed to occupational therapy. Before that, I did my undergraduate degree in Miami and was considering PT school actually. I spent some time exploring schools of OT and PT, and being a native New Yorker, I immediately looked at NYU. I went to an open house at the OT department and fell in love with the program. It was really that psychosocial component that drew me to OT and to NYU, and I thought that was something that was very valuable and lacking in some other programs.

Could you tell us a bit about your journey to your current position? How was the transition from playing the role of a therapist to more of an administrative side of things?

I have been in this position for a year-and-a-half with the Department of Education, and I graduated from NYU in 1996. I worked as a school-based OT for about 10 years and then I worked as an OT supervisor, after which I became the director of occupational therapy services. I took this job as senior director of all services about a year-and-a-half ago. At first, it was definitely difficult, but a lot of skills are skills that you use in occupational therapy, such as problem solving and people skills, and I think I was fortunate to be successful at transferring those skills into management.

How has being a part of the NYU alumni network helped you?

There are other NYU alumni, specifically from the OT program, who are my colleagues in and out of the school system, and I work with them on a continual basis. Some of them are also colleagues who own private practices and work with students’ families as therapists and supervisors. Because I’m a lifelong learner, the current faculty at NYU also serve as a great resource for me.

What would you say is the best part of your job?

I think the best part of my job is being able to work with different types of children and their families and make an impact daily on the lives of students with disabilities. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.

Kristie Patten Koenig featured in New York Times article

Kristie Patten Koenig, associate professor and department chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy was just featured in the recent New York Times article on the rise of Occupational Therapy cases in NY Schools. Speaking to the increase in quality as well as quantity of school based programming she said, “As more and more larger school districts are looking at inclusion practices, it becomes a more comprehensive program, versus just drop-and-pray or physical inclusion but not really integration.” To read the full article click here.

Building Assistive Technologies: An Interview with Anita Perr

Photo of Professor Anita PerrDuring the past year, through a collaboration between Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Poly’s Integrated Digital Media Program (IDM), the ABILITY Lab has become a meeting point for individuals with different expertise to develop assistive technologies for people with different disabilities. Located at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering‘s Metrotech Center in Brooklyn, the Lab offers students a place to explore and enhance technologies that can address the needs of people with disabilities. In an interview with SpOTlight, Anita Perr, clinical associate professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy talks about the ABILITY Lab’s current projects and its future plans.

What is the ABILITY Lab and how was it started?

The ABILITY Lab is a place to learn about, explore, and research assistive technology used by people with disabilities. Faculty, students, and researchers can connect with each other and work on their own projects or on ongoing ABILITY Lab projects. The ABILITY Lab started officially last year, but we’ve been running courses and working on assistive technology grants for about 10 years. It started with a relationship with Marianne Petit, associate arts professor at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) where artists and designers learn about and create interactive art and technology. Marianne was interested in how people with disabilities function and interact with technology, so we offered a one-time course on assisted technology. That course has been running ever since. When the NYU Poly School of Engineering came on board, we expanded the course and applied for and received funding for the ABILITY Lab.

Could you tell us a bit about the current projects in place?

We conduct courses at the ABILITY Lab, one of which is called “Developing Assistive Technology,” which is open to students across all of the schools at NYU. Groups of students collaborate with outside organizations to develop technologies for people with disabilities. Each of the groups that are set up are a mix of those students who have different professional backgrounds and different areas of interest and expertise. While they work on their projects, the course covers a variety of AT-related topics. We have five groups in the class right now. One of the groups is developing a device called “Gyrocafe,” which will help people who use walkers to carry things without spilling them. Another group is working with the Strivright School in Brooklyn – a preschool for children who are deaf or hearing impaired where they are developing a sensory room. The group in our class is developing an interactive device that will be used for practicing balance, reaching, and other motor skills. Other projects include apps for children who have difficulty producing the “R” sound, a portable and easy-to-carry ramp for places that don’t have curb-cuts, and a game app to improve memory and planning.

Could you tell us a bit about other activities at the Lab, like the project with autistic children?

TechKids Unlimited, a not-for-profit tech-based educational organization, runs a program in the ABILITY Lab on Sundays where kids ages 7-18, many of whom are diagnosed with autism, learn to use technology to make media, games, video, models, etc. NYU faculty and students help facilitate the classes as counselors and instructors. Using a strength-based approach, the kids learn skills that may develop into career interests and expertise. They also work on other skills, such as socialization and communication while they work and have lunch together.

What are the future goals for the ABILITY Lab?

This spring, students from NYU Tisch’s ITP and NYU Poly’s IDM will continue to work with the ABILITY Lab on projects related to their own master’s theses. We also plan to have a competition to offer seed money to students interested in developing a new project or working on an existing project. Our occupational therapy students will have the opportunity to receive small grants to act as clinical resources to the students working on projects. We will be using this year to apply for grants and continue to build the program.

Now that the ABILITY Lab is here and we are building an institutional history, we look forward to continuing projects from semester-to-semester. The information that students learn and their projects in class will be shared on our website so that other people can take a look at what we have done and use that to do their own work. We really want to foster the relationship between people in different schools in our own University along with the people with disabilities and researchers in the broader community so we can push the field forward.

Once an OT, always an OT

(The following is a guest post by Mary Donohue, former faculty member and alumna of the Department of Occupational Therapy at NYU Steinhardt about life as an occupational therapist after retirement)

For almost twenty years I taught psychosocial courses at NYU in the professional master’s program and served on the doctoral proposal board for OT, PT and rehab. My career in occupational therapy began in my late thirties, but when I retired at almost 70, I had not ‘finished’ my OT pursuit of knowledge.

After I retired, I was ready to sit down and co-author a book about social participation with Marli Cole, and to write a manual for the Social Profile assessment tool. Writing the book was a dream come true. Previously, I had not had time to focus on writing and publishing extensive works, but I had always had an interest in the role sociability, social presence and socialization play in our lives.

Working with the Social Profile Assessment tool gave me the opportunity to develop presentations illustrating the measurement capacity of this calibrated instrument and I have spoken about this program in guest lectures and posters over the past seven years at different conferences.

Since my retirement I have also found the time to focus on volunteering for occupational therapy committees and boards that I like to support. I have been a co-chair of the metro MNYD Research Committee for 30 years where I am now working with Nancy Finklestein Klein as my co-chair, to present a Research Forum of local OT studies annually. We also coach occupational therapists that need guidance in putting together studies.

For me, being on the high seas is both challenging and relaxing at the same time. I love being on the water. I’ve been a member of New York Sailing Club since 1980. It’s a great social club. After I retired, I had time to serve as Commodore for two years and I often provided galley gourmet meals on board for boat owners and hospitality at my house after seal watches on the Bay near Jones Beach. Our club is a ‘mature,’ generous group of boat owners and crew who share life on board, and lending a hand as a sailor. They rank high on the Social Profile scale of service and sharing. They are like family to me.

What drives me to continue to work in occupational therapy is two-fold: the energy that occupation provides to people to enrich their lives and live a healthy life-style, as well as the opportunity to keep in touch with inspiring colleagues in the field. For future OTs I encourage them to find what motivates their children, clients and community to help them to fulfill their lives’ dreams.


Open House

On the evening of October 14th, the Department celebrated its move to Pless Hall with an “Open House” event that brought together local alumni, fieldwork site directors, faculty and staff. The new Dean of Steinhardt, Dominic Brewer, and Associate Deans’ Lindsay Wright and Patricia Carey were on hand to meet our many guests. Visitors were given a tour of our wonderful new lab and office spaces, and were treated to wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Please enjoy the following photos from the event as well as a virtual tour. Feel free to drop in and see the new space if you are ever in the neighborhood!

NYU OT doctoral student receives Mitchell Leaska Dissertation Research Award

Grace KimGrace Kim, a doctoral student in the Department of Occupational Therapy, was recently awarded the Mitchell Leaska Dissertation Research Award, by the Steinhardt Office of Research and Doctoral Studies at NYU. The award includes a $5,000 stipend to help students complete their doctoral dissertation.

Kim is currently working on her dissertation titled, “The Effects of Attentional Focus on Motor Training of the Upper Extremity Using Robotics with Individuals after Chronic Stroke” under Jim Hinojosa, professor of occupational therapy. In addition to pursuing her doctoral studies, Kim also manages the clinical robotics program at Weill Cornell for inpatients and outpatients with neurological diagnoses.

The award is memory of Mitchell Leaska, a former Professor of English who taught at the Steinhardt School for more than 40 years.

NBCOT Therapy Ed Test Prep Course

The NYU Department of Occupational Therapy is pleased to announce that it will once again be hosting its Annual January NBCOT Exam Prep course offered by Therapy Ed. The two-day course will be held at the University on Tuesday, January 20th and Wednesday, January 21st, 2015. NYU OT students are eligible for a $30 course tuition discount (please follow the instructions on the NYU OT registration form). Please visit http://www.therapyed.com/nbcot.htm for additional course information.