Technicity Times
    Issue 1 • November 2002



Assistive Technology Is More Than Just a Buzzword.
Opening the Doors to Community Technology Centers.
by Martin Sweeney

Technology—a word used so often it means almost nothing. The other day I did a Google search for "technology" and came up with 59,400,000 hits. That's enough to keep one busy awhile and certainly longer than the 0.11 seconds the search reportedly took. Try adding a word like "assistive" to "technology" and the lines blur even more.

Maybe you know something about assistive technology, or perhaps you've heard the term on occasion and simply filed it away into the black hole of techno-speak. Clearly it has something to do with technology and probably something to do with assistance. For most people, though, the term assistive technology is not much more than another techie buzzword.

Add another word—disability—and the concept begins to come into focus. Assistive technology is really nothing more than a euphemism for access, specifically access for individuals who do not enjoy the standard access designed and engineered into most products of daily living, including computer access. Think about the standard keyboard, the standard mouse, the standard monitor, the standard off-the-shelf software. These are all products most of us are able to use just as long as we have standard sight, hearing, motor-coordination, speech or cognition. Of course, there are at least five million men, women and children living in the United States alone that fall outside this standard norm of access.

Now the picture gets even clearer. The federal government has one of those officious definitions that pop up in school districts, health insurance companies, fair hearings and government programs. For the record, it's worth noting:

"Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment, or product system whether acquired off the shelf, modified or customized that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

It's one of those definitions that is so broad that it includes everything from a simple modified pencil grip to a highly specialized microprocessor surgically implanted into one's brain. Assistive technology can be an extended hand gripper to snatch a soup can off a kitchen shelf to a hardware interface designed to translate brain waves into mouse click, double-click, drag-on and drag-off commands.

Assistive technology is like the ramp that gives people who can't walk access into a building. But for so many community members, assistive technology goes much farther than simply the front door.

Think about the baby girl who cannot easily move or sit up to play. Think about the young boy with cerebral palsy who doesn't have enough fine motor control of his fingers to type his name. Think about the young girl who is autistic and struggles to communicate her thoughts, wishes and feelings. Think about the high school student who has a learning disability and is not yet able to read.

Think about the graduate who uses a wheelchair and needs dependable public transportation. Think about the man who is mentally retarded and wants to e-mail his brother in Seattle. Think about the woman with no arms or legs that needs a voice recognition system to finish law school.

Think about the grandfather whose vision is so impaired that he can no longer read a letter from his grandson. Think about the next-door neighbor with advancing Parkinson's disease who can no longer use her voice to telephone her sister. Think about the favorite uncle with Alzheimer's disease who is struggling to remember even the most familiar faces and routines.

Assistive technology can literally improve and even change lives, yet many of those most in need do not receive the information and support necessary to identify, select and acquire the appropriate assistive technology that might make a difference in the quality of their daily lives.

Why is this important to Community Technology Centers (CTCs)? Because so many CTC sites are found near the epicenter of community resources. The community technology movement has heavily weighed in on the issues surrounding the digital divide and continues to shape the force of that important public debate. But that public dialog has not effectively integrated the voice and needs of the disability community.

Interestingly, this deficiency is not based upon an outright discriminatory policy because the CTC agenda is a progressive one. Rather, the underrepresentation of the disability community in our community centers and programs is more symptomatic of a simple lack of experience and expertise. Assistive technology represents part of the equation necessary to bring greater access to our centers.

The single, most commonly made mistake in creating access for individuals with a disability is to think about access simply in terms of the equipment. Repeatedly, centers with good intent allocate scarce resources and go out and purchase an adapted keyboard, a specialized mouse pad or even an adjustable table to accommodate a wheelchair user. Too often the equipment arrives, is installed or set up, and someone might even read the manual. Two months later the equipment is either off collecting dust in the corner or maybe even locked away unused on some back shelf. This happens repeatedly in resource and community centers nationwide.

So to fully understand what assistive technology is, one must consider further the section of the federal definition that too often escapes attention:

"Assistive technology is any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device."

These services can include evaluation; purchasing, leasing or otherwise providing services; selecting, designing, fitting, customizing, adapting, applying, maintaining, repairing or replacing devices; coordinating and using other therapies, interventions or services with assistive technology devices; training or technical assistance for child and/or family; and; training or technical assistance for professionals.

This list is offered not to intimidate centers away from the task and responsibility of creating access for community members with disabilities but rather as a sobering recognition and understanding of what can often be involved when providing true access. Again, it is not simply a question of equipment.

Community technology centers are not alone. The issue of access is shared community-wide and the difference between a dusty, unused piece of assistive technology equipment and genuine access is partnership. Realistically, the typical community technology center is not presently equipped to provide the experience, expertise and services generally needed to provide and support the assistive technology needs of their members with disabilities. However, this lack of experience and expertise does not relieve our centers from creating an open and welcoming door to everyone, including those with disabilities. It can be accomplished but it won't happen with a quick fix or purchase.

Centers must consider their staff and their staff development needs. They must consider effective outreach to community members with disabilities, letting them know about programs, resources and special accommodations. They must consider developing appropriate community in-services for community members unfamiliar and uncomfortable with disability. They must work with other community resources and agencies to develop adequate assistive technology services and resources.

Community access—for everyone—is an uphill effort, yet one well deserving our commitment and energy. Assistive technology (and access) is a significant undertaking that often does not make its way to our collective radar screens. It's too hard, it's too unknown, it's too daunting. Ignorance offers a way out.

Well, if you've read this far you no longer have ignorance as an obstacle (or excuse). The most practical suggestion I can offer is to create a task force at your center. Put access for community members with disabilities on your radar screen. Begin to move it up your priority list. Partner with a local resource or agency. Write a grant that will cover staff development, outreach, in-service and equipment. Exercise your leadership and your will.

Martin Sweeney is project director of the Assistive Technology Project at the Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center