ICS Educates Next Generation Of Occupational Therapists

Independence Care System (ICS) has been partnering with various colleges and universities across New York to create Lifestyle Enrichment Series programs to provide aspiring occupational therapy students with hands-on experiences working with people with physical disabilities.

In what has made for a rewarding, collaborative endeavor, Independence Care System (ICS) has been partnering with various colleges and universities across New York to create Lifestyle Enrichment Series programs to provide aspiring occupational therapy students with real-world, hands-on experiences working with people with physical disabilities. In supportive, nurturing environments, students have connected with ICS members to inform them on methods and techniques to remain physically, emotionally and socially healthy to live their best, independent lives in their communities, while learning more about the barriers and challenges people with disabilities face.

Lifestyle Enrichment Series programming with schools, including Long Island University Brooklyn’s School of Health Professions, Iona College’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program, Yeshiva University, and SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, have been facilitated by ICS Director of Member Programs JoEllen Zembruski-Ruple C.T.R.S. The goal of the Lifestyle Enrichment Series programming is to encourage members to have an active role in their health, all while feeling connected, educated and engaged, while providing occupational therapy students with invaluable fieldwork experience connecting and learning from one of the world’s most vulnerable and diverse populations. ICS, JoEllen said, is providing a foundation for future healthcare professionals to serve people with disabilities.  

Programming has focused on a variety of areas, including:

  • Memory changes and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Pain management
  • Nutritional education
  • Hypertension management
  • Injury prevention

As part of the programming, supervised students engage in open and supportive discussions with ICS members. Together, under the guidance and supervision of JoEllen, students create exciting, goal-oriented programs for members that focus on strategies and solutions for injury prevention, sleep hygiene, relaxation and exercise techniques for managing chronic pain and reducing stress, building self-advocacy and empowerment skills through health literacy, and establishing home management strategies, with a focus on accessibility and safety.

Developing programs to support members

JoEllen noted that the Lifestyle Enrichment Series launched as part of the ICS Virtual Social Program, which was designed to promote participation in social, emotional, educational and recreational activities among members who were isolated in their homes during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Lifestyle Enrichment Series programs quickly grew in popularity, with members attending weekly and building relationships with students to address their health needs and goals.

“We are excited, and invested in these students to help open their eyes to the world of disability, and to show them a population that is often forgotten to provide them with experience that they can take on their professional journeys,” JoEllen said.

Connecting with educators and professors to ensure the programs come to life, JoEllen explained, is critical for both ICS members and students. SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, Occupational Therapy Program Chair Efekona Nuwere, Ed.D, OTR/L, said that it has been a strong collaborative effort between the school and ICS to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities. Dr. Nuwere and JoEllen first connected when he was at LIU Brooklyn’s School of Health Professions. Both have remained in contact ever since.

“While at LIU, the pandemic was ongoing and everything was locked down,” Dr. Nuwere said. “Students needed their fieldwork placements and clinical hours. We were working to ensure they had opportunities to learn with real people. ICS was a perfect match. The idea for a virtual program was excellent, and through technology, students found themselves in an environment they had never been in before, learning about people with disabilities and the needs of members.”

A specialized learning experience

JoEllen explained that prior to a program’s launch, she is engaged in conversations with students, who share their interests and what they hope to take away from a program, including skills they want to develop and what they hope to learn from ICS members. That helps determine the program framework. 

“We work closely with students, and take ownership for educating them,” JoEllen said. “Mutual goals are established. ICS staff with physical disabilities also meet with students and educate them on their roles at ICS and share their lived experiences. We have had extremely positive feedback from professors and students alike.”

Dr. Nuwere, who was once a consultant for ICS’ On A Roll comprehensive wheelchair program, recalled fond memories of his time at ICS. When presented with the opportunity for LIU students to do their fieldwork with ICS, he immediately jumped at the chance.

“I remember going to the Brooklyn office and the wheelchair clinic, and seeing social programs and advocacy efforts in action,” Dr. Nuwere said. “The ICS partnership provided a chance for LIU students to stretch out their skills and knowledge about disability. They felt more confident in their skills as developing occupational therapists to deliver services, and became more self-directed, creative and good communicators.”

SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University Graduate Student Ellenie Kuszer said the program provided a strong learning environment where she was not only able to develop her skills, but learn about the barriers and challenges people with disabilities face when it comes to their health and wellbeing. She intends on applying all she has learned when treating people with disabilities to ensure for greater quality care and to make a difference in their lives.  

“It was such a privilege to engage with ICS staff, members, and volunteers to learn more about the fantastic resources that ICS provides for its members,” she said. “This experience helped solidify my passion for assisting patients to reach their best quality of life and being their advocate in doing so. I am excited to take everything I learned and to cultivate my future career.”

Understanding disability

Moving forward, JoEllen explained that she wants to continue the level of successful programming, and to collaborate with even more colleges and universities to ensure students from across New York receive invaluable experiences in working with, and learning from, people with disabilities.

“Through continued partnerships, students can grow, develop and expand their skillsets and knowledge of people with disabilities, while also ensuring members feel their best physically, mentally, and emotionally,” JoEllen said.

Dr. Nuwere echoed those sentiments, noting that he not only wants students to learn the proper techniques and skills to provide care for people with disabilities, but to also open their minds to the barriers and challenges they face, as part of their overall education. That experience, he said, is attainable through ICS.

“I want students to have a personalized experience with people with disabilities—students can’t learn about that experience from a textbook or myself, but directly,” Dr. Nuwere said. “I also want them to understand the barriers people with disabilities face and to learn about disability justice. When I consulted at ICS, it was the advocacy piece that attracted me to ICS.

“There is a lot healthcare providers can realize about how the environment and personally-held beliefs can be just as disabling,” he added. “I want occupational therapy practitioners to learn about disability perspectives as early as possible, so the more knowledge they have, the more likely they will be able to provide equitable care later on in their careers.”

Christopher Engelhardt

Christopher Engelhardt

Communications Specialist

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The Independent is ICS’ official newsletter, featuring the latest stories around ICS, its members and staff, as well as news on what’s happening in the disability community at large.

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