by Kailey Fisicaro

Working in schools, specialists like physical therapists, occupational therapists, autism specialists and more see ways in which assistive technology could really help young people in need.

Assistive technology includes a wide range of devices and tools that can support people with disabilities. While tablets or smartphones may come to mind when we hear the word technology, in the case of assistive technology, items can range from an adaptation of a wheelchair to a therapeutic swing.

In many schools, specialists are left to figure out how to adapt equipment or surroundings for their students. But in Central Oregon, Bryan Malone, an adaptive equipment specialist with High Desert Education Service District, serves a unique and vital role, handcrafting assistive technology for students in need.

While Malone is a licensed physical therapist, the title doesn’t nearly define all he does in a day’s work. Jill Barrett, another physical therapist with HDESD who works with Malone every week, summed it up better.

“Bryan has an extremely rare skill set,” Barrett said. “It is like having a mechanical-electrical engineer-woodworker-welder-architect-safety analyst-assistive technology professional-physical therapist, because he has the skills to do all of these things.”

Barrett’s not alone in her view of Malone. In the 2018-19 school year, Malone was recognized with the Judy Rowe Exemplary Therapist Award, a statewide honor named for a physical therapist with an outstanding philosophy and work ethic. On a daily basis, Malone collaborates with HDESD specialists like physical and occupational therapists to come up with solutions for local students with special needs.

Sometimes the ideas are already well-defined when specialists present them, Malone said, while other times they’re just a seedling. Most school years, Malone works on 200 to 300 custom projects for students. And that doesn’t count the adjustments or fixes he makes to existing adaptive equipment.

This past school year, for example, Malone worked on fitting a power wheelchair with a white cane for a blind student. It’s the norm for Malone to be presented with problems he hasn’t tackled before, which is why he’s constantly designing, brainstorming, building, testing and re-adapting to come up with a final product that works for students.

“We get to ask, is anybody else doing this? No. Should we not, is this unsafe or inappropriate? No. Let’s do it. Let’s try it,” Malone said. “We can be kind of an incubator for ideas or theories. And not in a research sense but at least in a trial-and-error or feasibility sense.”

When he’s not in schools checking on how the assistive technology solutions are working for students, Malone is working in his shop on projects. It’s unusual for a service district or school district to have someone in Malone’s role, who can craft custom equipment. But it’s something Central Oregon school districts see great value in.

“We’ve had and still have incredible support and buy-in from our school districts,” Malone said. “They’re on board. I think they see how important it is and how cool it is frankly and they continue to support us in doing this.”

In the long run, Malone and others see his role as a great cost savings, providing students with custom equipment, as opposed to often pricey, off-the-shelf equipment that doesn’t quite fit, or may not even exist in the first place. And more important to Malone, much of the equipment helps students feel more comfortable, or can put them in healthier physical positions.

The assistive technology Malone creates also supports students in having as much independence as possible. For example, Malone recently fitted a walker with a tray that can flip up and down so the student using it can set his lunch tray on it to grab his own food. It’s sometimes small adaptations like these that can end up making a big impact in a student’s day, and in their life.

“Bryan directly improves the lives of my students at school, through equipment that cannot be purchased ‘off the shelf,’ but is customized to individual needs,” Barrett said. “Often times, they are brand new inventions.”

Malone, who has served in the role for six years, isn’t the first to do so. Before, him Allen Tenney, an occupational therapist, pioneered the job at HDESD. Malone was grateful to take over a role that combined his experiences so well, as a physical therapist who used to work in clinical orthopedics in Bend, and before that as a cabinet maker and in assistive technology in Nashville, where he’s from.

Through his previous work in Tennessee, Bryan presented nationally with former coworkers at national conferences for the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America and the International Seating Symposium.

Malone would love to see more education service districts or school districts have positions like his to better serve students with assistive technology. There are some challenges to pulling off the model — for one, it works best to have a clinician like a physical or occupational therapist serve in the role, because otherwise they’d need constant consultations from specialists. But it’s a position that Malone, and many others, including Barrett, see as worthwhile despite some of the obstacles.

“It is an exceptional opportunity and gift to be able to learn from him while also being part of the process to achieve end products for students,” Barrett said.