Kevin Ryan A rehabilitation engineer talks about helping people with disabilities, and why high-school kids are smarter than college students.
What projects do you work on for the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS)? I’ve been a judge and an advisor for National Engineering Design Challenge (NEDC) teams. NEDC teams are comprised of school kids who try to design an assistive-technology device to aid someone with severe disabilities. Mostly I provide information and contacts in the disability community. We encourage students to work with local agencies that are affiliated with NISH.
Name: Kevin Ryan
Why do you participate in JETS? I love working with the teams because it is such a great opportunity to reach some extremely bright kids. They learn to apply engineering principles in a real-world situation. They are also exposed to the disabled community and make a connection with people with disabilities. In addition to the wonderful projects they work on the students see people with disabilities as regular people. We believe as they progress in their careers they will be more likely to give a person with a disability a chance to work because of their participation in this program.
What surprised you about working with students? In addition to the NEDC competition, NISH sponsors a college engineering-design competition. What surprised me the most is that many of the high-school projects are as good, or better, than submissions we see from college students. The other thing that stands out in my mind is the look of accomplishment that I see in the students as they do the presentations and talk about making a connection with the people they are helping.
What does a typical workday look like? I frequently travel to agencies that employ people with disabilities. When I’m on-site at a customer location, I spend a lot of time on the manufacturing floor observing and formulating ideas for improvements to workstations and process flow-techniques. I talk to both the employee and supervisor to gain an understanding of current procedures and goals. Many times, simple changes can result in improvements for all workers and can have an even more dramatic effect on the workers with disabilities.
What kinds of projects do you work on? The goal of my job is to help people with disabilities be more productive at work. I work with two team members. When we start working with a company, we ask two questions: What jobs do you have in your organization that people with disabilities have difficulties performing, and which individuals do you have the most difficulty finding productive jobs for? Depending on which path we head down, we divide jobs into smaller tasks, look for ways to eliminate or simplify steps, and find ways to use the abilities each employee has.
What tasks do you most like to do? I enjoy hands-on analysis of workstations and processes, prototyping design changes in my workshop, and including my customers in testing to get real feedback on a change’s effectiveness. It is also rewarding to see job satisfaction among the customers after a project is complete.
What is the worst career decision you’ve made? Early in my career I took a temporary assignment in California. The position was not challenging or rewarding, though it was great to see another part of the country. When I returned, there were no challenging positions available so I spent another year and a half without challenging work.
What attracted you to an engineering career? As a junior in high school I considered accounting. All it took was one class in accounting to convince me that I wanted to go into engineering. I decided to try engineering because I thought I was smart enough to succeed at it and I thought if I did not try I would regret it.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing engineering? It is a great career. If you are willing to work hard and follow through on commitments, there is opportunity for huge job satisfaction. You are probably not going to get rich but you can have a good-paying job. In addition, the analytical skills that you build are valuable whether you continue in technical work or choose to move into management.