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Key Issues in Assistive Technology

Education

School districts are required by law to provide appropriate assistive technology (AT) to students with disabilities in order for them to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). In order to support the inclusion and participation of students with disabilities in regular education classrooms, all Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) developed for children identified as needing special education services must indicate that AT has been considered "to provide meaningful access to the general curriculum" (IDEA, 1997). IDEA states AT devices and services must be made available to a child with a disability if required as part of the child's:

  1. Special education,
  2. Related services, or
  3. Supplementary aids and services.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) includes these guidelines:

  1. AT must be provided by the school district at no cost to the family.
  2. AT must be determined on a case-by-case basis; it is required if needed to ensure access to free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
  3. If the IEP team determines that AT is needed for home use to ensure FAPE, it must be provided.
  4. The student's IEP must reflect the nature of the AT and amount of supportive AT services required.
  5. A parent is accorded an extensive set of procedural safeguards, including the provision of AT to the child.

There are a few issues that should be considered when electing, acquiring, and using assistive technology in educational settings. There continues to be a general lack of information among professionals, administrators, and parents on the availability and use of devices to promote access to the general curriculum. Efforts must be made to ensure that parents and professionals become aware of the existence of these devices and the legislation that supports their use. Assessment, cultural and family concerns, device design, training, cost, and maintenance are issues that must be addressed.

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Employment

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, only 29 percent of people with disabilities are in the labor force and only 18 percent work full-time. Meanwhile, 82 percent of all working-age Americans are in the labor force, and 65 percent are working full-time. In that survey, 4.2 million people reported being limited to the kind or amount of work they could do, and only 714,000 Americans with disabilities reported having an accessible work environment, including hand rails or ramps. It is clear that the benefits of AT have yet to reach many segments of the American workplace.

Two-thirds of those unemployed people with disabilities have a desire to work. For many of those, the key to finding and retaining work is AT. Both federal and state government have realized the importance of AT in the lives of people with disabilities and the impact on their ability to work and live independently. AT can have a direct impact on the productivity of a person with a disability in the workplace. Devices range in costs, sophistication, and universal application. Twenty-nine percent of accommodations made by employers cost less than $100. Even some of the more complicated AT, such as voice recognition or screen-reading software and Braille typewriters, can cost less than $500.

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Community Living

Individuals with disabilities must have access to the full range of accommodations necessary to ensure that living in their natural community is possible. These accommodations may take various forms such as personal attendant services, respite, durable medical equipment, or even minor home modifications. Accommodations may be needed on a short term or long term basis, with the need for anything from low tech to high tech devices depending on the need of the individual. Examples of accommodations include physical accessibility, attendant services, medication monitoring, supported living, assistive technology, and employment services.

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Accessible Information Technology

Individuals with disabilities are the largest population who do not vote. There are clear barriers that deter people with disabilities away from the voting booth. From inaccessible polling sites where a person cannot physically get into his or her polling place to inadequately-trained poll workers whose cultural insensitivity may discourage people with disabilities to vote.

Also, casting a ballot is a secret and private right. However, many people with disabilities have not been able to enjoy the privilege of the private vote. People who are not physically able to hold or maneuver a pen, pencil, or hole-puncher to vote or who cannot see the actual ballot have had to verbalize their vote to an attendant, poll worker, or family member. To these citizens, a private ballot has been a foreign concept. Accessible voting machines can help reverse this trend. Whereas previous elections were decided on inaccessible equipment that did not allow for a private and independent ballot for people with disabilities, there is now assistive technology available that levels the playing field for all citizens regardless of disability.

People with disabilities have a great deal at stake when it comes to the equipment used in elections. Accessible equipment gives people with disabilities greater comfort in involving themselves in the democratic process. As a result, more voters with disabilities come out to vote, further integrating them into their community. If more people with disabilities are voting, issues that are important to the disability community become more important to the community at large. This community includes politicians who create and shape the policies that affect people with disabilities. Weighing in on the debate over voting machines will have an effect on the ability of individuals with disabilities to advocate for the laws and services they need to further integrate into their communities.

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Universal Design

The term, “Universal Design,” with regard to product development means an item that is usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. These products accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; communicate necessary information effectively (regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities); and can be approached, reached, manipulated, and used regardless of the individual's body size, posture, or mobility. Application of universal design principles reduces the need for assistive technology, results in products compatible with assistive technology, and creates a product that works better for everyone, not only for individuals with disabilities.

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Assistive Technology for Infants and Toddlers with Special Needs

Early intervention services for children ages birth through age two are provided through Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The local education system is responsible for providing services to children with low-incidence disabilities (visual, hearing, or severe orthopedic impairments or any combination of these). These services are provided by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Assistive technology must be included on the child’s Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). Once the child is referred to the appropriate agency, that agency should appoint a service coordinator, complete an evaluation and assessment, and conduct an IFSP meeting within 45 days. If assistive technology is requested after an IFSP is written, then the following steps should be followed:

  1. Make a request to the service coordinator asking for the assistive technology that the child needs, or stating the child’s need if you don’t know exactly what is needed.
  2. Once your request is made, a goal should be written on the IFSP, including a plan of implementation to achieve the goal, and how the goal will be evaluated.

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Assistive Technology and Aging

According to the 2000 U.S. census, approximately 42 percent of the population, age 65 and older, are living with a disability. Baby boomers comprise about one third of the country’s population and are beginning to reach retirement age. By 2010, one in four Idahoans will be over the age of 60. Many seniors will need assistive technology to maintain their independence and quality of life because of the physical changes that can occur as we grow older, such as vision loss, hearing difficulties, decreased flexibility and agility, memory loss, etc. .

While seniors are familiar with devices such as reachers and grab bars, many do not think of those items as assistive technology devices that can increase their function and independence. However, seniors may also reject using such devices, even if they understand the benefits, because the devices are associated with people with disabilities. Seniors who lose their vision or hearing, develop arthritis, or lose mobility must accept their age-related disability and learn that they can utilize the same resources as a middle-aged adult with the same impairments.

Many mobility devices can help seniors continue to live in their own homes and participate in community activities. Stair lifts allow seniors unable to climb stairs to access the second story of their homes. Ramps provide wheelchair access to homes and other structures, and modified vans with ramps or lifts make it possible for individuals in wheelchairs to continue driving. Other popular AT for the home includes grab bars, lever door handles, and rocker light switches. Assistive technology also helps seniors continue to enjoy recreational pursuits. Card stands and large-print playing cards make the game accessible to players with low vision or limited finger dexterity. Assistive technology devices also exist for bowlers, golfers, swimmers, and gardeners. Many devices are designed to help people modify or eliminate much of the bending and lifting often associated with their favorite activities. In this regard, AT enhances quality of life through seniors’ continued involvement in favorite pastimes.

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Emergency Services Planning, Implementation, and Assistive Technology

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all Americans began to evaluate their personal safety in previously unthinkable situations. People with disabilities who, prior to 9/11, had valid concerns for their own safety now had reason to take their concerns to a higher level. Recognizing that everyone, including individuals with disabilities, should benefit from the same level of safety and security in their communities and work environments, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13347, Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness, on July 22, 2004. This Executive Order directs the federal government to work together with state, local, and tribal governments, as well as private organizations, to appropriately address the safety and security needs of people with disabilities.

In addition to this Executive Order, there are a number of regulations, codes, and guidelines that require federal agencies to address emergency preparedness of people with disabilities. For example, federal agencies located in buildings managed by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) must have an Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP) for all employees, with or without disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2008 can also impact emergency preparedness plans. This law, which applies to the United States Congress as well as private entities and state and local governments, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment as well as other matters. Providing a reasonable accommodation to an individual with a disability is a central concept under the ADA. Emergency preparedness plans should include people with disabilities, and in order to do so effectively, organizations need to establish a process to fulfill requests from individuals with disabilities for reasonable accommodations they may need in emergency situations. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federal programs or those receiving federal funds, and in the employment practices of federal agencies and their contractors, has similar implications on federal agencies’ emergency preparedness plans.

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Assistive Technology and Veterans

In the United States, there are more than 26 million veterans of the armed services, from World War I veterans to those who served in the War on Terror. These veterans share a special bond and camaraderie unlike any other group in society. However, the harsh realities of war have cost many veterans their hearing, eyesight, and limbs. Rather than remain limited and isolated by their injuries, veterans must rely upon assistive technology to enhance their quality of life. Assistive technology such as prosthetics, wheelchairs, and hearing aids are used by veterans to improve their hearing, mobility, and other functional limitations.

Assistive technology can be costly, but veterans who are covered by the federal government do not need to worry about costs, provided they fill out the proper paperwork. The only payments that must be made by covered veterans are co-payments for the technician's time.

While the federal government provides assistive technology resources and services for veterans, the rules concerning assistive technology are unclear and inconsistent between service-related and non-service related injuries and illnesses. For example, prosthetics and rehabilitative devices are treated the same between service and non-service veterans with both being completely covered by the federal government. However, adaptive equipment for vehicles and vocational training are available only for veterans with service-related injuries, leading to confusion for veterans. In addition, there are inconsistencies based upon type of injury. For instance, veterans with spinal cord injuries can obtain a computer through vocational training or as part of an environmental control unit, but they cannot obtain a computer solely as a rehabilitative device. The services available are inconsistent from region to region and center to center with stronger, more knowledgeable directors being able to obtain services other centers cannot.

Another problem is access to assistive technology for veterans. To obtain the services and resources available to them, veterans need to visit a military or veteran’s medical center for medical review, followed by a visit to a center specializing in providing the type of assistive technology they need. This bureaucratic requirement creates a major problem for veterans who reside in rural areas where there is little or no access to veteran services. In these areas, veterans have two options - either travel to the existing military and veteran sites or use local medical and assistive technology services. However, if veterans choose to use local services, the federal government does not cover the costs. While the federal government does contract out some of its work with a few private sector organizations and has established some community-based outpatient clinics, it is impossible for veteran services to cover all of the rural areas.

The waiting period for veterans to obtain services and assistive technology also varies depending upon the region they reside in and the type of injury. Some of the sites have a high volume of veterans requesting services, which increases the wait time for assistive technology. In other cases, the type of injury and the specialization needed extends the wait. For example, a veteran who is blind can receive assistive technology and training at seven centers under the VA system throughout the nation. However, due to the demand and the few numbers of sites, a blind veteran may wait up to nine months to receive assistance.

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Recent Major Disability Related Issues

Medicaid for Workers with Disabilities (formerly Medicaid Buy-In)

A major barrier to Idahoans with disabilities wanting to work was the fear of losing their Medicaid benefits. New legislation (Bill # HB 664) created a Medicaid for Workers with Disabilities (formally known as Medicaid Buy-In) program for Idahoans with disabilities. Medicaid for Workers with Disabilities helps transition people to work by permitting them to receive Medicaid while working. For people with disabilities on Medicaid, there was no incentive to work more than part-time since if they earned even one dollar too much, they lost their Medicaid coverage. That coverage paid for the supports and services that people with disabilities needed to go to work. With this program, when the eligible person goes to work, they pay a sliding scale premium enabling them to retain their coverage.

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Project Vote!

Increasing the Participation of Idahoans with Disabilities in the Electoral Process

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush to help states and counties improve the election process throughout the country. The law requires the establishment of a statewide voter registration system, increased voter education programs and poll worker training, increased access for individuals with disabilities to the polls and encourages updating of election systems and equipment in the counties. Along with these mandates, the federal government has provided funds to states to help accomplish these changes.

In response to this new federal legislation, the State of Idaho developed a state plan in order to ensure its compliance with HAVA. In part, Idaho’s state plan states, “By 2006, voting systems in Federal Elections must provide voters the ability to review their ballot, be able to produce a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity, provide accessibility for voters with disabilities, and must not exceed specified error rates.”

In 2004, a team from the Idaho Council on Development Disabilities was selected to receive training sponsored by the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and the Kennedy Foundation. This resulted in a new initiative called Project VOTE. The purpose of Project VOTE is to increase the abilities of individuals with disabilities to:

  1. Participate in voting.
  2. Learn about issues that affect their lives.
  3. Pick the issues and the candidates they believe in.
  4. Get the support and accommodations they need to register/cast a ballot.

In addition to the work being done by the Project Vote Team, the Idaho Task Force on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in conjunction with the Secretary of State, has conducted training for county clerks. This training included a check list to assist local officials in assessing polling places for accessibility. More recently, the ADA Task Force also has acquired two sets of posters, ½ dealing with sign language and ½ outlining 10 steps to polling place accessibility that can be used to augment that checklist information. The Idaho Assistive Technology Project is and will continue to be involved with the acquisition and use of accessible voting technology.

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Policy Changes in Idaho Code

  • House Bill 557: Council on Developmental Disabilities Amendments.
    The IATP participated with the Idaho State Council on Developmental Disabilities to gain approval for House Bill 557 which amends and repeals existing law to revise the membership, powers, duties and authorities of the Developmental Disabilities Council. This bill is designed to bring Idaho into compliance with the federal developmental disability legislation and includes provisions related to assistive technology which exceed the federal legislation.
  • House Bill 577 and House Bill 579: Child Custody/Adoption for Parents with Disabilities.
    The IATP has been involved with the Committee for Father and Mothers Living Independently with their Youth (FAMILY) for three years. The Committee was established by the State Independent Living Council and is composed of legislators, state agency representatives, advocates, Grandparents as Parents, the IATP, and other interested parties. The mission of the Committee was to address the unique needs of families in which one or both parent has a disability. The result of this work was the development and introduction of two pieces of legislation in 2000 and 2001. These bills removed discriminatory language from Idaho Code related to parents with disabilities and included provisions related to the application of assistive technology devices and services for families in which one or both parents has a disability. Both bills passed in 2002 and another bill is pending.
  • House Bill 531:
    Telecommunication Equipment. Authorized the Telecommunication Relay Services Fund to be used for the procurement of specialized telecommunication equipment through the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Held in committee.
  • House Bill 629:
    Death Penalty for People with Mental Retardation. Adds to existing law to prohibit the imposition of the death penalty upon a persons with mental retardation. Held in committee.
  • Senate Bill 1320:
    Accessible Parking. Bill will increase the availability of designated accessible parking places for those who are qualify to use them. Bill was held in committee.

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Policy Changes in Rules

  • Revisions to Education Technology Policies.
    The IATP finally gained approval from the Idaho Board of Education for changes to the state plan which governs the purchase and use of educational technology in Idaho schools. School districts must now include students with disabilities in their annual technology plans and state department must make internal procedural changes to comply.
  • State Information Technology Policies.
    The IATP provided technical assistance to the Information Technology Resource Management Council concerning Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Council is developing a set of state guidelines governing the planning for, purchasing of and use of information and telecommunication technology in state government.
  • Participation in OSER’s visit.
    Through its representation on the state’s Special Education Advisory Panel, the IATP was involved in the recent federal review of Idaho’s special education program. The IATP was involved with the state’s self-assessment, participated in one of the task forces convened to address areas of improvement, and participated in developing the plans to address these areas of concern.
  • Home and Community Based Wavier Application.
    The IATP provided technical assistance to Medicaid policy makers preparing Idaho’s application to the federal government to continue the operation of the Medicaid waiver program for persons with developmental disabilities. This waiver includes AT and related services.
  • Participate on a Regional Advisory Panel.
    The IATP was asked and accepted an invitation to sit on the North West Disability Business and Technical Assistance Center’s Regional Advisory Panel. This Panel will provide guidance to the NWDAC concerning strategies for increasing the accessibility of information technology in the northwest region of the U.S.
  • Participate with the Consortium for Idaho’s with Disabilities.
    The IATP continues to be involved with the Idaho Consortium for Idaho’s with Disabilities and is now helping to sponsor a monthly compressed video meeting which allows individuals in north Idaho to participate in the Consortium’s monthly meetings.

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