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In Her New Role as Doctoral Capstone Coordinator, Dr. Debra Latour Leads by Example

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 8, 2022 - 12:00 PM

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Dr. Debra Latour is an educator, therapist, advocate, consultant, inventor, entrepreneur, and Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy in Western New England University’s cutting-edge OTD program, which educates students to be leaders and innovators in the high-growth field of occupational therapy.

Last fall, she added another role at WNE to that long list: Doctoral Capstone Coordinator.

“This is a really strongly emerging area of occupational therapy education,” Dr. Latour said. “Our doctoral capstone project is something that is experiential, it’s student-led, and it requires a relationship with the community.”

In year two, OTD students identify a topical area of interest to them, and the project continues through year three. Examples of recent projects include “Development of an Overdose Fatality Review Team in Massachusetts: Occupational Therapy as a Key Player in Opioid Overdose Prevention Efforts,” by Shelby Spears; “A Student-centered Self-identity Approach to Harm Reduction in Adolescents,” by Taylor Bannish; and “Interprofessional Practice and Care Partner Education for Dementia Care Excellence,” by Shannon O’Neill.

“I always give them my spiel about how it’s so important to work smart and have fun. It’s kind of my mantra,” Dr. Latour said. “As students are choosing their capstone areas, I tell them, ‘choose something that is really interesting to you and about which you have passion. Because you’re going to spend so much time on this process, so much energy, and so much of your own effort and emotion, be sure it’s something that you love and feel strongly about.

“Then, the ‘working smart’ part has to do with learning from each other and remembering what we have learned thus far,” she continued. “We all have individual stories from which we can learn and share with each other. And that’s one of the most important aspects of occupational

therapy—that notion of our own therapeutic use of self and how we can incorporate that into both the art of practice and the science of our practice.”

These facets are important because, as students in an entry-level doctoral program, they are novices without a lot of professional experience.

“We’re helping them to tap into what those emerging passions are and begin to investigate them while they learn about the concept of population health and serving entire communities,” said Dr. Latour.

“And each community is different. A community could be geographic, and within those there are subcommunities, smaller neighborhoods. But there are also communities of people who have commonalities—maybe a medical condition, socioeconomic status, education level, or ethnicity.”

As students hone in on a population of interest, they discover what type of care they receive and what problems still emerge, then further develop their own ideas about how to fill those gaps and make a difference.

“That’s what they all do,” she continued, noting that the past two cohorts of capstone projects included about 30 students each. “They have all done things that make a difference for distinct populations.”

Occupational therapy has always been personal for Dr. Latour, who was born with a congenital upper-limb difference. But so has innovation.

Her parents were concerned that their daughter would be developmentally delayed in learning basic childhood tasks needed to attend kindergarten if she did not have the use of two limbs. With their persistence, Shriners Hospitals for Children agreed to make her a test case, and at 14 months old, she became the youngest person at the time (1957) in the U.S. to be fitted with a prosthetic arm.

As a young woman frustrated by her prosthesis’ uncomfortable harness, she created a prototype for a better one. She offered the patent rights to Shriners, but when the small marketplace for upper limb difference technology didn’t procure a community partner to distribute or manufacture the devices, she, along with her husband and father, took to manufacturing them in her home. She also started a consulting business, Single-Handed Solutions, whose tagline is “not to make a million dollars, but to make a million differences.” 

Dr. Latour’s work continues to focus on population health and building a larger body of research on populations with congenital or acquired limb difference, to better advocate for their needs.

As Doctoral Capstone Coordinator, she appreciates the impact she can have in preparing the next generation of occupational therapists. 

“It’s really exciting to be in this position because I feel like I get to provoke and inspire. How wonderful is that?” she said. “And I try to do that through the courses I teach, but also by my own example, by having a passion myself, and also as an occupational therapy practitioner. I want to make a difference for different groups of people—people like me who have upper limb absence, people like me who are occupational therapy practitioners, and influencing the world by provoking the next generation of practitioners. So it’s a really exciting and pivotal position to be in.”