The following article first appeared in the August 14th edition of OT Practice was reprinted with permission of the American Occupational Therapy Association. If you wish to cite the article use the following: Lenker, J. A. (2000). Certification in Assistive Technology. OT Practice. 5(21).


by James A. Lenker

Assistive technology has emerged as a viable area of specialization for occupational therapists in settings ranging from schools to adult rehabilitation facilities to developmental centers. Therapists who work in this burgeoning field should be aware of the certification process for assistive technology practitioners.


The field of assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering has its roots in the years following World War II. From the beginning, it was a needs-driven specialty area. The polio epidemic of the 1950s, birth defects resulting from the use of thalidomide by pregnant women in the 1960s, and injuries incurred by those who served in the Vietnam War all resulted in new forms of disability, each presenting with unique challenges for accommodation. The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the Veterans Administration responded to these societal needs by forming a number of Rehabilitation Engineering Centers (RECs) around the country throughout the 1970s. The RECs typically had unique areas of specialization, which ranged from wheeled mobility and seating to prosthetics and orthotics to environmental control. A separate group of engineers and clinicians, whose focus was on augmentative communication and computer access, also began meeting in the mid-1970s at the self-organized Systems and Devices Conferences. [1]

These two groups began meeting together informally in the late 1970s, culminating in the formation of the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America (RESNA) in 1979. Today, RESNA's 1,100 worldwide members come from backgrounds that encompass occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, special education, engineering, and political advocacy. In order to reflect the evolving professional diversity of its membership, RESNA has changed its name to the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America while keeping the RESNA acronym because of its name recognition value. Throughout its history, RESNA has had an ambitious agenda that has juggled support of virtually all arenas comprising the field of assistive technology: clinical service delivery, research, new product development, legislation and funding initiatives, and consumer awareness and empowerment.

Simultaneous to RESNA's inception was the birth of what became the personal computer revolution. The potential of computers for persons with disabilities was tremendous --truly portable devices could facilitate writing and speaking for those who needed alternative means of self-expression. The impact of this phenomenon was felt throughout the fledgling assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering fields occupational therapists, special educators, speech-language pathologists, and rehabilitation engineers found themselves confronted with new challenges as they attempted to avail their clients of the opportunities that were now possible through computers and augmentative communication devices.

Along with these new technological challenges came a void in professional preparation. With the exception of a half-dozen universities, assistive technology was not included in the pre-professional curricula for either allied health or engineering programs. Most practitioners picked up their assistive technology skills on the job, learning from colleagues and through personal trial and error. Continuing education seminars at selected conferences began to emerge, with RESNA's annual conference and the Closing the Gap conference leading the way throughout the 1980s. Both conferences offered state-of-the-art content and the exciting opportunity for attendees to mix with the leaders of the field. Several additional conferences emerged with a second wave that came to fruition in the late 1980s--among them the CSUN conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, the International Seating Symposium, and the Council for Exceptional Children's Technology and Media Conference.

Another piece of the professional puzzle fell into place with the initiation of two peer-reviewed journals, Assistive Technology (founded in 1989) and Technology and Disability (founded in 1992), both of which were dedicated to publishing research-oriented papers that advanced the clinical practices of the field. Recognizing the importance of assistive technology as a tool-of-the-trade for occupational therapists, AOTA began endorsing the discipline in the early 1990s through formation of the Technology Special Interest Section, acceptance of papers with assistive technology-related content in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, and sponsorship of the "Tech Lab" that is held at AOTA's Annual Conference and Exposition.

Thus, by the middle of the 1990s, the field of assistive technology included a dedicated professional society, a number of annual conferences that included platform presentations as well as product expositions, two peer reviewed research journals, and special interest sections within the various allied health and special education professional associations. What was lacking was a mechanism for verifying a minimum level of competence for professionals who were practicing in assistive technology. Such standards were needed to ensure a minimum level of service quality and therefore protect the ultimate consumers of these services-- children, adults, and elders with disabilities.


RESNA again asserted its leadership role by obtaining a quality assurance grant in 1994 from the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education. In early 1995, RESNA established a separate Professional Standards Board (PSB) whose purpose was to develop standards of practice and certification for assistive technology practitioners. With the financial support of the NIDRR grant, RESNA's PSB developed the assistive technology practitioner (ATP) and assistive technology supplier (ATS) certifications, both of which were initiated in 1996. Both certifications are managed by RESNA's PSB, which has a role analogous to the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy's (NBCOT's) role with respect to AOTA--the PSB is clearly a separate entity from the professional society to avoid conflict-of-interest issues. As its name suggests, the ATP targets practitioners, including occupational therapists, physical therapists, special educators, speech-language pathologists, and engineers. Complementary to the ATP, the ATS targets suppliers and vendors of assistive technology equipment. The scope of assistive technology content areas encompassed by the ATP/ATS certifications includes wheeled mobility, seating, computer access, work site accommodation, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and environmental control units (also known as Electronic Aids to Daily Living, or EADLs).


As with most professional certifications, those who seek RESNA's ATP credential are required to meet minimum criteria in three areas: education, work experience, and successful completion of a standardized written examination.


The education and work experience criteria must both be met before one is allowed to sit for the ATP examination. The education criterion can be satisfied with any one of the following: (a) a bachelor's degree in a "rehabilitation science"--which, for RESNA's purposes, includes occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, special education, rehabilitation engineering, low-vision rehabilitation, vocational rehabilitation, audiology, nursing, and medicine; (b) an associate's degree in a rehabilitation science (e.g., COTA and PTA programs); or (c) a bachelor's degree in a nonrehabilitation science.

Work Experience

The work experience criterion varies somewhat depending on one's educational background. Those with a BS or BA in a rehabilitation science-related major are required to accumulate 2 calendar years of experience that involves .25 full-time equivalent (FTE), approximately 10 hours per week, of assistive technology service delivery. Those with an AS or AA degree in a rehabilitation science-related area are required to accumulate 2 calendar years of experience that involves at least .50 FTE, approximately 20 hours per week, of AT service delivery. Those with a BS or BA degree in a nonrehabilitation science field are required to accumulate 4 years of service delivery experience at a minimum of .50 FTE. In all cases, RESNA's PSB verifies work experience through a written statement from the appropriate supervisor(s).


The 4-hour ATP exam consists of 200 multiple choice questions, 150 of which address topic areas that are considered "foundation knowledge," and 50 that are case-based questions that reflect high-level clinical decision-making. Overall, the test reflects the diversity of knowledge and skills expected of those working in the assistive technology field. The 10 content areas and their relative weighting are as follows:

  • psychology and sociology (5%)
  • human anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and biomechanics (12%) basic etiologies and pathologies (8%) principles of learning and teaching (7%) assessment procedures (15%) service delivery systems and funding for assistive technology (9%)
  • principles of design and product development (9%)
  • basic product knowledge of AT devices (16%)
  • integration of person, technology and the environment (12%)
  • professional conduct (7%)

Each of these areas is explained in greater detail on the Candidates Information Bulletin that is posted on RESNA's Web site at Because of our professional training and the opportunities afforded by our practice areas, occupational therapy practitioners are well prepared to pass the ATP examination. The test seems to have been designed with occupational therapists in mind, which is not a great surprise given our prominence as one of the key professional players in assistive technology. The test questions are very pragmatic and not overly difficult, but they do require background and knowledge across a broad range of assistive technology-related topics.


There are several options for acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to practice in the area of assistive technology. Cook and Hussey described four formats for assistive technology education: (a) on-the-job training, (b) formal education that is a component of existing professional program preparation, (c) continuing education, and (d) graduate programs that are dedicated to assistive technology training. [2]

On-the-Job Training

If one is lucky enough to have a good mentor in a supportive clinical setting, on-the-job training can be an excellent means for acquiring the knowledge and skills required of assistive technology practitioners. Unfortunately, the number of such opportunities is somewhat limited due to the relatively small size of the field.

Professional Programs In OT

Most professional programs in occupational therapy offer limited opportunity for formal preparation in assistive technology. Thus, many in the field have traditionally relied on graduate school, continuing education classes, or on-the-job trial and error to attain initial proficiency as assistive technology service providers.

Continuing Education

The aforementioned conferences--RESNA, CSUN, Closing the Gap, International Seating Symposium, and AOTA--offer outstanding opportunities for continuing education in formats that include full-day instructional sessions, paper presentations, product expositions, and informal meetings with likeminded professionals.

Graduate Programs

Those who are considering graduate school should explore the existing options for acquiring assistive technology education and training while earning a master's or doctorate degree. RESNA's Web site ( includes an extensive listing of university-based training programs in assistive technology. Several of these programs are based within occupational therapy departments, while others are not. It is important to evaluate any graduate program based on its merits relative to one's own personal goals. For most people, the key factors include entrance requirements, diversity of course content, opportunities for clinical experience, quality of faculty mentorship, potential for financial aid, and degree outcome (e.g., graduate certificate, MS, or PhD). The better programs feature course content that represents the assistive technology field's diversity, including seating and wheeled mobility, augmentative communication, access to and integration of computer-based technology, ergonomics and work site accommodation, architectural accessibility, environmental control, universal product design, legislation and funding, professional ethics, and clinical outcomes research.

Opportunities for clinical experiences in assistive technology are also a key component of good graduate programs. Sampling a variety of service delivery programs can provide one with an appreciation for the variations across clinical environments; however, development of skills is best attained with practicum experiences that are 300 to 500 hours long. [3, 4]



Listservs are Internet-based, unmoderated discussion groups that bring together groups of people who share common interests. They can be particularly useful as vehicles for professionals seeking continued education and solutions to everyday problems and dilemmas. The assistive technology-oriented lists that are run by RESNA ( and AOTA's Technology Special Interest Section ( are outstanding.

Distance Education

A growing number of universities offer the opportunity for online distance learning. Although these certainly have a role in providing opportunities for introductory study on assistive technology, most do not provide the depth of content, mentorship, and clinical experience that are essential for one to become a competent entry-level assistive technology practitioner.


The ATP certification process is a healthy developmental milestone for the relatively young field of assistive technology. The basic role of assistive technology credentialing is to ensure consumer safety and increase consumer satisfaction. The ATP certification is not a license to practice and does not allow people to practice in an area in which they are not prepared. However, it is the only formal process that attests to advanced knowledge and practice skills in the assistive technology specialization area. Although the ATP is not currently required for one to practice in the field, it is very likely that this certification will be a criterion for employment in the not-too-distant future. Fortunately for occupational therapy practitioners, we are well positioned to attain the ATP designation and continue our role as valued members of the assistive technology service team.


1. Hobson, D. A (1996). RESNA: Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Assistive Technology, 8, 131-143.

2. Cook, A. M., & Hussey, S. M. (1995). Assistive technologies: Principles and practices. St. Louis: Mosby.

3. Lenker, J. A. (1998). Professional education programs in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. Technology and Disability, 9, 37 48.

4. Smith, R. O. (1992). Technology education from an occupational therapy view. Technology and Disability, 1, 22-30.



Applications of Technology for Persons With Disabilities

(22-minute video) By the Center of Assistive Technology. Buffalo, NY: State University of New York at Buffalo. ($40 for members; $50 for nonmembers. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA.)

Assistive Products: An Illustrated Guide to Terminolopy

By G. C. Krantz, M. A. Christenson, & A. Lindquist, 1998. Bethesda, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association. ($30 for members; $37 for nonmembers. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA.)

Assistive Technology

Journal published by RESNA (see below).

Assistive Technology and Occupational Therapy: A Link to Function

(Self-Paced Clinical Course) Edited by J. Hammel, 1997. Bethesda, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association. ($235 for members; $270 for nonmembers. 10% discount on orders of 3 or more. Earn 28 contact hours. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA.)

Assistive Technology for Persons With Disabilities: The Role of Occupational Therapy

(2nd ea.) By W. C. Mann 8 J. P. Lane, 1995. Bethesda, MD: American Occupational Therapy Association. ($45 for members; $58 for nonmembers. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA.)

Closing the Gap

526 Main Street, Henderson, MN 56044; 507-248-3294; 507-248-3810 (Fax);

CSUN Conference on Technology and Persons With Disabilities,

State University-Northridge Center on Disability, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA, 91330-8340; 818-677-2578 (voice/TTY); 818-677-4929 (Fax);

The International Seating Symposium

University of Pittsburgh, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, 5044 Forbes Tower, Pittsburgh, PA, 15260


1700 North Moore Street, Suite 1540, Arlington, VA, 22209-1903; 703-524-6686; 703-524-6630 (Fax); 703-524-6639 (TTY);

Technology Special Interest Section

Call AOTA at 301-652-2682 or 800-377-8555 (TDD), or go to

Jim lenker, MS, OTR/L, ATP, is a clinical assistant professor and director of the Graduate Certi9cate Program in Assistive and Reha'oilitation Technology, Department of Occupational Therapy, State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the education and research liaison for AOTA's Technology Special Interest Section and was recently elected to serve a year term on RESNA's Board of Directors.

Author's Note: I welcome comments and inquimries fron readers who are interested in the ATP certification process, the AT field in general, or our graduate program in assistive technology at the State University of New York at Buffalo (contact: for more information).

Last Updated: 3-2-2006

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