Q&A With Paul Fontana: Helping Vets and Service Members Return to Work
By Stephanie Yamkovenko
Young male veterans who have served since September 2001 had an unemployment rate of 29.1% in 2011.1 At more than three times the national unemployment rate, there is a pressing need to help our veterans find jobs and return to work. Veterans who had a physical injury may have even more difficulty finding a job, especially an industrial job or other work that requires physical labor.
Are you an occupational therapy practitioner working with clients with TBI, PTSD, or who are active service members and veterans? You can learn in-depth information about these topics from the leading experts at AOTA's Specialty Conference—Advanced Practice in Traumatic Injuries & PTSD and earn up to 13 contact hours. September 7 to 8 in San Antonio, Texas
For nearly 30 years, Paul Fontana, OTR, FAOTA, has been working with civilians, service members, and veterans in an industrial occupational therapy program to help all clients who have had an injury gain the skills and confidence they need to return to work.
Fontana is presenting at the upcoming AOTA Advanced Practice in Traumatic Injuries & PTSD Specialty Conference on Friday September 7 at 4:00 p.m. AOTA talked to Fontana about the unique needs of service members and veterans and how occupational therapy is perfectly suited in helping them find a job or return to military service.
AOTA: What do you do for service members and veterans in your work rehabilitation program?
Fontana: From a physical standpoint, once they reach maximum medical improvement for whatever their issue was—whether it was loss of a limb or a severe injury to a shoulder—we figure out what problems they have that prohibit them from going back to work. We figure out the essential job functions and the physical demands of their new or potential job and then develop a program to get them back to that level. We are truly looking at simulated work activities so that these guys or ladies are able to find out what they can physically lift, push, pull, carry, scoop, squat, and all of the positional components that they have to do in their job. This will certainly increase their ability to step back into the civilian workforce or remain in the military. We improve their functional abilities by teaching them the compensation skills they need and giving them the confidence that what they do is not going to make their injury or problem worse so that they can compete in the job market. Essentially they are going to be competing in the job market with everyone else.
AOTA: What skills do most service members and veterans gain from their deployment or military service that are transferrable to civilian employment?
Fontana: In the military, not everyone is just trained to shoot a rifle. People are mechanics, electricians, truck drivers, etc. They are learning the skills that translate directly into business and industry. Also, a lot of them have skills that are indirectly translated, such as their ability to work on projects as a group, the ability to problem solve, the ability to develop a plan—these are the same things we are looking for with employees.
AOTA: What issues do service members and veterans have that need the most help or improvement from an occupational therapy program?
Fontana: For some service members, they may have had a very real injury—they may have lost a limb or had some very traumatic physical injury—but they may also be magnifying their pain symptoms. We need to be able to identify that so we can do something with it in a constructive manner. In my experience if we identify someone as a type three symptom magnifier, if we can bring all of those people that are significant in their life—the husbands, the wives, the kids, the physician, the vocational counselor—so we're all on the same page for rehab, we can make tremendous progress. If we don't overcome that obstacle, they will be stuck in symptom magnification forever.
AOTA: What makes occupational therapy best suited for these types of programs?
Fontana: We've got a good solid base in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. We have a good understanding of the medical conditions, and we can break down tasks. We can analyze tasks critically, looking at those essential components of jobs so we can do a good job of simulating those components in a safe environment or a clinical environment. We can put both components together—the physical rehabilitation and the functional rehabilitation.
AOTA: Why should occupational therapy practitioners attend the AOTA Specialty Conference—Traumatic Injuries and PTSD?
Fontana: I think occupational therapy practitioners out there who have not been exposed to what's available for this population need to come to seminars like this to find out what is available. Similar to what I did 30 years ago, maybe they will find this is an area that they can get involved with and expand what they have to offer to a new population.
Get information about Fontana's session and register for the AOTA Advanced Practice in Traumatic Injuries & PTSD Specialty Conference here.
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA's staff writer.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012, March 20). Employment situation of veterans summary. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/vet.nr0.htm.