Few occupational therapists (OTs) or physical therapists (PTs) are trained to work in the school transportation environment. Pediatrics is a specialization within the therapy profession, school system therapy is a further specialization and school transportation is virtually ignored. Thus, many therapists working in school systems are reluctant to become involved in school bus transportation. This is a problem because more and more transportation officials are realizing how important therapists are in school transportation. The question, then, is how can we begin to bridge the gap between therapists and the transportation department?
Ask for a guest lecture
The first step is to tap into the expertise of pediatric OTs and PTs. You might want to start by asking them to give an in-service lecture on different types of disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy. Then arrange some brain-storming sessions on how these disabilities could affect transportation. For example, a boy with Duchenne-type muscular dystrophy can walk, but cannot negotiate the bus steps. What do you do? One solution is to put the youngster into a wheelchair (provided by the school system) and load him into a lift-equipped bus. Once inside the vehicle, he could then be transferred to a bus seat. The transportation staff can also request an in-service on proper body mechanics for lifting and transferring students from their wheelchairs to the bus seats. Help in this area could reduce the number and severity of injuries to drivers and attendants and, consequently, lower your worker's comp costs. Plus, by asking the therapist for these two in-service presentations, you are beginning to build that bridge. (Flattery can go a long way.) Once you've established a link with your therapists, you might want to go a step further.
To give them a firsthand understanding of wheelchair transportation, why not invite them to bring wheelchairs to the bus compound? Then, ask the therapists to go for a ride in the bus - in the wheelchair. Put them through the entire process: riding the lift, having their chairs tied down and going for a ride. And don't just drive around the compound; venture out into traffic. This experience should provide them with new insights into special-needs busing, both from the perspective of the driver and the passenger. Don't limit this experience to OTs and PTs. After all, how many transportation supervisors, route coordinators, drivers or mechanics have been in a wheelchair? Encourage your staff to talk to OTs and PTs about specific problems. For example, therapists could be asked to describe the proper posture of wheelchair students. If a child is always poorly positioned in his wheelchair when the driver arrives to pick him up at his home, she could alert the therapist, who could work with the parents on how to lift and position the child more appropriately. In addition, if the wheelchairs need repair - or replacement - the OTs and PTs can work with parents on those tasks.
If possible, return the favor
As I noted earlier, therapists are not traditionally taught about school transportation. If you have the opportunity to attend a pupil transportation conference, share the information with your school therapists. You could also help sponsor a transportation workshop for OTs and PTs and provide them with the names of other OTs and PTs involved in transportation - peer support can help a lot. Once you have started to get your therapists involved, make them part of the transportation team. As members of this team, the OT and PT can then assist with decision-making. It may take a little time to build the bridge between the transportation department and the OT/PT staff; however, once that bridge has been completed, communication becomes a two-way street.
Jean M. Zimmerman is a district resource therapist for occupational and physical therapy at the School District of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla.