On the first Saturday of every month, University of Connecticut physical therapy students volunteer at the New England Assistive Technology Center in Hartford (NEAT). A branch of Hartford’s Oak Hill School for adults and children with physical disabilities, NEAT is an important resource for assistive devices and technology in Connecticut.
At NEAT, donated medical equipment is refurbished and sold to the public at a reduced price. The equipment is often available at less than half of the original price, making wheelchairs, walkers, standers, bath equipment and other assistance devices truly affordable to those who need them.
“I think the most rewarding part of my experience at NEAT was when I realized how many families NEAT assists with acquiring good, functional equipment at a price which is much more affordable than brand new,” says student Rob Pritchard.
It is important to note that NEAT does not compete with other vendors in the state. Indeed, NEAT and several retail outlets work together to ensure patients get the equipment they need. While the majority of NEAT customers are Connecticut residents, people from throughout the US—and even Third World countries—have turned to NEAT for assistance.
UConn physical therapy students work with NEAT staff to clean and refurbish equipment—a process that teaches them how these devices work and are put together. Students also learn from NEAT staff how to train patients to use the equipment. This often involves students taking part in simulations that allow them to experience challenges related to certain disabilities.
“As a DPT student, it’s important to gain an understanding of what types of devices are available to help your patients,” Pitchard says. “Volunteering for NEAT has been a good opportunity for me to learn about options that can increase patients’ mobility or overall level of function.”
Dr. Deborah Bubela, clinical assistant professor in residence, is also happy at how students are able to help NEAT. She said she first became involved with NEAT while practicing PT and was looking to help patients find affordable equipment: “As an instructor, I feel strongly that NEAT provides an important resource that I’d like students to not just recognize, but be involved with. Our students do a lot of good there.”
The volunteer work also provides students with an opportunity to distinguish themselves and make connections with professionals in the field. “You never know where this can take them,” says Dr. Bubela. “It’s important for UConn to have positive working relations with facilities and give back to the resources in our state, especially when the partnership is mutually beneficial. I hope to get even more students involved in the future.”