Suzanne Sanchez is a senior director of therapy services at the New York City Department of Education, which is responsible for providing necessary services to students with disabilities from more than 600 schools. An NYU Department of Occupational Therapy alum, Sanchez’s work centers around policy development related to occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and assisted technology services within the public school system, which serves almost 35,000 students that require occupational therapy and about 15,000 who need physical therapy services. In an interview with SpOTlight, Sanchez talks about her journey to an administrative role at the Department of Education and the diverse and challenging roles of occupational therapists in the public school system.
Could you give an example of how you have shaped policy that connects students to occupational or physical therapy services? How do you know that a public school student might need them?
One of the things we do is determine what services should be provided to support the students that need them and decide which is the best service, whether it is occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy. We develop an individualized teaching program for the student and guidelines around the criteria for providing these services. We assign a therapist to work with the student and they, along with supervisors, determine an intervention plan for each case. We have a staff of more than 1,200 OTs and PTs, more than 2,000 speech therapists, and we provide professional development to them on school-based practice interventions.
How is the therapy administered? Is it tied to the school curriculum and given in the school itself?
Yes. The majority of the services are administered in schools themselves. We do have some kids who may receive services at home if they are homeschooled or are in a homeschool situation because of an injury. But more than 90 percent of our services are provided in school and they are provided in a therapy room or directly in the classroom, which we call the natural environment so the therapist can work to support the student exactly where their disability is impacting them.
Could you give an example of the kind of OT services a student may need or receive in a classroom setting?
Let’s say a student has cerebral palsy and has a physical disability where they have what we call hemiparesis, that student may need support while typing on a keyboard, holding a pen or a pencil, sitting upright in a chair, or moving around the school environment and participating in gym or lunch room with their peers. An OT, PT, or speech therapist would go and assess the student’s level of functioning and evaluate where the student might need support and how the support can be provided. Much of our work is focused on ensuring that students with disabilities participate with their non-disabled peers so that they are not separate or segregated. A therapist can help the student by either using adaptive equipment to increase mobility, work on speech and language production so they are able to communicate with their peers, or use an assisted technology device so that a student can communicate and socialize with their peers if they have limited communication skills.
What makes working in a school system unique or different from other occupational therapy settings?
I think one of the things working in the school system offers is exposure and the opportunity to work with children with all kinds of disabilities. I have worked with children who have neurological or physical and cognitive impairments, autism, spina bifida, and those with intellectual disabilities – pretty much anything you can think of. I think that working in the school system poses a unique set of challenges and there are a wide variety of disabilities that a therapist is expected to support. It’s not like an outpatient setting where you’re working with primarily hip and knee replacements, or an in-patient facility where you will see patients who have had a stroke or neurological injury. A school-based service is much more subjective and encompasses a much wider of range of disabilities in a broad age range. A therapist here works with students ranging from preschool to 12th grade.
Today, there are many career tracks for occupational therapy students, especially therapists who want to work with children. There’s pre-school setting, clinical setting, sensory integration specialties, and certainly now needs that are related to autism. There are tremendous opportunities out there for therapists interested in OT and assisted technologies.
What drew you to occupational therapy and the program at NYU?
I had worked in a group home for young adults with autism during undergraduate school and it was there that I was first exposed to occupational therapy. Before that, I did my undergraduate degree in Miami and was considering PT school actually. I spent some time exploring schools of OT and PT, and being a native New Yorker, I immediately looked at NYU. I went to an open house at the OT department and fell in love with the program. It was really that psychosocial component that drew me to OT and to NYU, and I thought that was something that was very valuable and lacking in some other programs.
Could you tell us a bit about your journey to your current position? How was the transition from playing the role of a therapist to more of an administrative side of things?
I have been in this position for a year-and-a-half with the Department of Education, and I graduated from NYU in 1996. I worked as a school-based OT for about 10 years and then I worked as an OT supervisor, after which I became the director of occupational therapy services. I took this job as senior director of all services about a year-and-a-half ago. At first, it was definitely difficult, but a lot of skills are skills that you use in occupational therapy, such as problem solving and people skills, and I think I was fortunate to be successful at transferring those skills into management.
How has being a part of the NYU alumni network helped you?
There are other NYU alumni, specifically from the OT program, who are my colleagues in and out of the school system, and I work with them on a continual basis. Some of them are also colleagues who own private practices and work with students’ families as therapists and supervisors. Because I’m a lifelong learner, the current faculty at NYU also serve as a great resource for me.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
I think the best part of my job is being able to work with different types of children and their families and make an impact daily on the lives of students with disabilities. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.