October 15, 2021 by HCDE-Texas
A team of expert craftsmen in Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District’s maintenance department plays a unique role in students’ everyday lives. Harris County Department of Education school-based physical therapists collaborate with CFISD’s carpentry department to design and build custom equipment for students who receive physical therapy services.
“Cy-Fair does a really nice job at providing the equipment that is needed for students to reach their functional potential at school and access their school environment,” said Nora Contreras, an HCDE Physical Therapist Assistant who is embedded in CFISD.
However, she explains that some students only need minimal support or need something specific to their campus. This is where CFISD’s carpenters come in.
“Let’s say a student can sit in a regular classroom chair and doesn’t need a manufactured, orthopedically supportive chair. They just need a little help so they don’t lean to the side too much,” said Contreras. “We would come in, take measurements, and have the carpenters attach lateral supports to the regular classroom chair. By adding lateral support, the student is safe from falling and is sitting in a classroom chair like his peers.”
School-based physical therapists everywhere support students’ ability to access their school environments. However, the partnership between HCDE physical therapists and CFISD affords a new level of customized care and is “unheard of” by several accounts.
“The accessibility that these gentlemen provide for our kids—I can’t say enough,” said Contreras.
A 25-year employee of HCDE, Contreras says CFISD has provided this service since before she was contracted to the district in 2001. Over the years, physical therapists and the carpentry department have collaborated to design various types of equipment, including custom-made cafeteria and classroom chairs for students who use wheelchairs, wooden bases to prevent chair tipping, and skid-free footrests for additional support when sitting.
Each piece of equipment is created out of a need identified by the students’ teachers or therapists. When Contreras learns of an accessibility issue, she and her physical therapy supervisors take the relevant measurements and helpful photos and submits a work order, often including drawings or clip art to depict the idea.
“Most of the time, I can just go off of the measurements they give me and build it to those specs,” said CFISD carpenter Don Schippers, although he sometimes meets Contreras on campus to talk through the solution.
Through decades of hands-on experience, Contreras has created standards for special education changing tables required for any campus where students receive physical or occupational therapy services. Among other specifications, Contreras included a standard height, an opening for a mechanical lift, storage cabinets, and lock rolling casters for both stability and mobility.
“It’s been very well thought out,” said CFISD Carpentry Foreman Bill Maxfield.
Contreras, who serves students across 13 campuses, explains the difference some of the equipment makes for her students’ school experience. She and the carpenters designed a cafeteria chair that slides over the stools attached to the tables in many CFISD cafeterias.
“[The chair] offers the back, arm, and feet support for a student who uses a wheelchair to be able to sit anywhere along the table with their classmates and not be forced to sit at the end of the table,” she said.
Some solutions resolve specific barriers, such as one project for a fifth-grader named Kingston Nguyen.
Nguyen, who refuses to be slowed down by his cerebral palsy, uses a reverse rolling walker, which rolls behind him as he supports himself using bars on either side of his thighs. It also has a small seat, which allows him to take breaks as needed while walking around the campus with his class.
Nguyen gets through most of his school day with little to no help from his teachers or therapists, but until recently, he required assistance in the cafeteria. Nguyen needed help carrying his lunch back to the table to sit with his friends, so Contreras and Schippers created a foldable tray attachment for his walker. It took some trial and error to create a base that would support the weight of a cafeteria tray, but with a bit of persistence, they succeeded.
“[Schippers] was patient, detailed, and creative,” said Contreras. “Kingston told us what he wanted, so he had a part in it, and his teacher had a part in it. He is now 100% independent at school.”
Being part of a team that supports students and supports teachers and staff with the knowledge to provide access for their students is what Contreras calls “the best job.”
“When it comes down to it, they’re little kids. They don’t need to be worried about where their body is in space. Being able to relieve that worry by putting them in a position and equipment so that they can have a good day at school means a lot,” said Contreras.