Assistive Technology Is More Than Just a Buzzword.
Opening the Doors to Community Technology Centers.
by Martin Sweeney
Technologya 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 worddisabilityand 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
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
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
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
"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
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 accessfor everyoneis 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