Dr. Debra Latour: Different By Design

Dr. Latour seeks to "make a million differences" as an occupational therapy educator, advocate, and innovator

One of the first things you notice when you meet Dr. Debra Latour is an unusual sound.

As she speaks and gestures, you realize it’s the clicking of her bracelet worn not on her wrist, but prominently on her prosthetic arm. It’s a visible and audible reminder that Dr. Latour celebrates what makes her unique—and that outlook may have made all the difference in her life.

An assistant professor of practice in the second year of the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at Western New England University, Dr. Latour says she is exactly where she wants to be—in her career and in life.

She’s an educator, therapist, advocate, consultant, inventor, and entrepreneur, who embraces a profound faith and exudes an infectious sense of fun.


Registered in six states, the long-time occupational therapist-turned-academic completed her O.T.D. last spring and is excited to be a part of the innovative three-year Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, one that educates students to be leaders and innovators in the high-growth field of occupational therapy.

Occupational therapists help people participate in the “job of living” through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). Common interventions include helping children with physical challenges to participate fully in school and social situations, aiding people recovering from injury to regain skills, and supporting older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.

Reflecting the field’s growing demand for therapists with doctoral degrees, Western New England’s program offers a direct path from a bachelor’s to a doctorate with no intermediary master’s degree required. As long as applicants have the proper prerequisites, bachelor’s degrees in many disciplines are viable for enrollment.

“I think I’m inventive because I grew up having my parents rig things up for me all the time. I played guitar. I would have trouble holding on to the pick with my prosthesis, and my dad would conjure up a way for me to do that.” - Dr. Debra Latour

Primed to Persevere

Dr. Latour, who was born in the 1950s with a congenital upper limb difference, surprisingly never had occupational therapy growing up, but what she did have were two very creative and encouraging parents.

The eldest of six children, she feels fortunate to have grown up in West Springfield, MA, just across the river from the Shriners Hospitals for Children. It was there that her determined young parents brought their infant daughter to be fitted with a prosthetic arm. But they were initially turned away. “Bring her back when she’s five,” the doctors told her parents. Her father, who had studied engineering at Western New England before dropping out to raise his family, and her mother, an artist and later entrepreneur, 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 agreed to make Dr. Latour a test case and at 14 months old she became the youngest person in the U.S. to be fitted with a prosthetic arm.

While her parents were thrilled, young Debi initially rejected her new appendage. It was hot, sticky, and the harness chafed her tender skin. When her parents weren’t looking, the strong-willed toddler routinely threw it in the trash.

“I remember I cried every time my parents put it on me,” says Dr. Latour, who has kept a number of her childhood devices. “One of the most poignant memories I have was that I would try to throw it away at night. Those were the days when we had furnaces in our basements and my dad would empty the trash to be incinerated in ours every night. This particular night, when I was about three years old, I remember being in bed and hearing my mother call to my dad, ‘Eddie did you empty the trash already?’ and I heard this scurrying around and the next thing I knew I was pulled out of bed and plunked onto the bottom step of the basement stairs. I remember watching my dad open up the furnace as fire came out of it. He grabbed a metal hanger, unwound it, and dug in there to pull out my little prosthesis.”



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Watching her father do something so dangerous had a profound impact on Dr. Latour and changed her relationship with the device. She knew it must be something valuable and important. Despite periodic tears, she learned to use it to pull up her own zippers, tie her shoes, and do the occupational tasks learned by other children preparing for school.

"My whole life has been just one divine appointment, not that it hasn’t been without challenges or sorrows or hardships. I wouldn’t say it was a totally charmed life, but I certainly am blessed and have had a great life." - Dr. Debra Latour

A Lasting Impression

A good student, Dr. Latour twice encountered ignorant public school teachers in the sixties and seventies, who felt her physical differences affected her intellect and made her undeserving to be in their class. Their unfathomable bullying only made her more determined.

Dr. Latour enjoyed both writing and STEM subjects so it was especially hurtful when her algebra teacher sought to harass and embarrass her.

He made her sit front row and center and at the end of each class gave her just a few seconds to gather all the papers handed in by classmates into alphabetical order as he slapped a table counting down to zero. Failure to meet this demand led to warnings and lowered Dr. Latour’s grades.

When her parents realized what was happening, they made arrangements for their daughter to be transferred and also be assigned to a new guidance counselor, one who didn’t share the teacher’s views. Unfortunately, Dr. Latour had to remain until the end of the semester. On her last day, her mother suggested she make a lasting impression.

“I was mortified to do it and didn’t like drawing attention to myself, but I went up to him, told him I had learned a lot in his class, and reached out to shake his hand with my prosthetic arm. He shook my hook and I walked out,” she recalls. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did.”

The Perfect Fit

Dr. Latour found a new and intuitive guidance counselor, who recognized in her the qualities that would make her a good fit for the field of occupational therapy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy from Tufts University. While working as a therapist at Shriners Hospitals that had been so important to her, she pursued an M.Ed. in Advanced OT from Springfield College and a doctorate from A.T. Still University.

Seeking to help patients beyond those in her personal care, she created a blog. Dr. Latour also runs a consulting business: Single-Handed Solutions, whose tagline is “not to make a million dollars, but to make a million differences.” It consults for organizations such as Handspring, Liberating Technologies, and TRS; creates educational instructions for patients and therapists; and produces videos that feature her demonstrating adaptive strategies. She is extremely proud of her several patented devices.

Inspired Design

As a young woman, Dr. Latour was frustrated that her prosthesis’ harness was uncomfortable and did not allow her to wear fashionable clothes like her peers. Finding a better solution was always on the back of her mind. One night after attending a religious retreat and praying for a solution, she awoke to a sense of divine inspiration. She knew instantly what the harness should look like. The next day at work, she cobbled together materials to create a prototype. She knew who to show it to first—her parents. “They were out shopping for a new washing machine,” she says. “I insisted on meeting them right away to show them that I had finally found a solution. We all ended up crying with joy in the parking lot at Home Depot.”

She offered the patent rights to Shriners, where she worked at the time, because “I wanted to leave something behind with the entity that had given to me,” she says. When the small marketplace for upper limb difference technology didn’t procure a community partner to distribute or manufacture the devices, Dr. Latour, her husband, and her father took to manufacturing them in her home. To date, through distributors in the U.S. and Canada, she has sent thousands of her Cutaneous Anchor Technology devices around the globe.

Championing “Unlimbited” Wellness

What drew Dr. Latour to the profession of occupational therapy was its emphasis on both the art of practice with its origins in the use of textile arts and crafts as a part of therapies paired with the application of science. Now in its second century, she is excited to see that duality in the profession continue. “The vision for our program is to combine the clinical experience with the academic preparation, which is unique, so that instead of working out of separate silos the faculty is enmeshed; we are integrated,” she explains. “I love that vision because I think it’s very difficult for students to integrate knowledge that comes from these different areas and not see it put into practice.”


Dr. Latour’s dissertation, ongoing research, and lectures focus on what she calls “the idea of population health and how conditions may or may not affect patients throughout life.”

Part of the goal of lifelong study of populations with congenital or acquired limb difference is to build a larger body of research to help advocate for their needs and coverage by insurance. After years of overuse, Dr. Latour’s own natural arm has gone from 80-lbs. of gripping ability to just 20. Most shockingly, her externally-powered prosthetic is not covered by insurance.

She’s determined to make that practice history. “If I can protect a generation through preventative strategies and awareness, then maybe I can make a real difference.”