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Sonya Van Horn
North Carolina Assistive Technology Project
Mecklenburg County Preschool Services
Assistive technology equipment is often expensive and difficult to obtain for trial use, evaluation, and training. Imagine trying to find a library book with no catalog system. This is what it is like for some people trying to find a piece of assistive technology to borrow. There may be a lot of equipment to choose from, but finding it can be quite a challenge. This challenge of getting assistive technology off the shelves and into the hands of consumers prompted the development of a new project in North Carolina.
In 1996, several agencies in North Carolina embarked on a project designed to make assistive technology more accessible to consumers. The project, entitled Check-It-Out (CIO), is a coordinated effort to streamline the loan of assistive devices to North Carolinians with disabilities, their families, and their service providers. By combining inventory and other information from equipment loan programs in the Check-It-Out Web site, borrowers are offered an efficient means for locating and requesting equipment loans from anywhere across the state.
CIO was the product of brainstorming among several agencies searching for strategies to increase awareness and accessibility to assistive technology loan programs in North Carolina. Personnel involved in the brainstorming were members of the North Carolina Assistive Technology Consortium and others who represented programs that provide services, including loan of assistive devices, across age ranges. These representatives were mindful of variations in the awareness of both consumers and service providers as to the availability and location of assistive technology loan programs.
Some of the challenges to universal awareness of equipment loan programs included consumer relocation between programs or regions, limited impact of awareness-level training, and total coverage in outreach efforts to rural areas. As solutions evolved, it became apparent that a potentially powerful strategy was to utilize the World Wide Web (WWW). Linking existing equipment loan programs across the state via the WWW would make assistive technology equipment loans more accessible and efficient for consumers and professionals. The WWW was identified as a prime tool for dynamic access to and sharing of equipment loan information. Not only could Web site information be available virtually 24 hours a day, but users would have access to a fully searchable database of loan inventory from across North Carolina. Further, borrowers would have the option to generate a loan request immediately following a search for equipment simply by pointing and clicking.
In developing a framework to implement this strategy, several core goals were identified. The first goal was to identify funding sources and secure support of disability related agencies. A task force was identified through the North Carolina Assistive Technology Consortium. Members of the task force represented the following agencies: Division of Aging, Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Division of Services for the Blind, Mecklenburg County Preschool Services, Division of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities/Substance Abuse Services, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Governor's Advocacy Council for Person's with Disabilities, Division of Maternal and Child Health, North Carolina Assistive Technology Project, Infant/Toddler Assistive Technology Resource Centers and Tadpole (a grant funded equipment loan program that ships equipment to children in rural areas). The second goal was to develop a plan that used powerful and rapid means for access and dissemination of information. Third was identifying meaningful benefits to participating agencies and sending invitations to participate. The fourth goal was to secure cooperative agreements with existing equipment loan programs to ensure that this project enhance, rather than redefine, existing service models. The next step was to disseminate the database and begin providing training and technical assistance to the loan programs that had agreed to participate.
Participation guidelines were designed to preserve existing service models and to preserve local control of equipment inventories. Benefits for participating agencies included a copy of a sophisticated database to track inventory and loan activity, free on-site training and technical assistance for using the database, and increased access to other loan programs across the state.
The database designated for distribution was designed using FileMaker Pro. Originally developed at Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, the database was meant to serve as a basic system to track loan and equipment information. Over time, it evolved into a powerful tool used by North Carolina's seven Infant/Toddler Assistive Technology Resource Centers to manage lending library and service delivery information. Given its demonstration as a viable system for record keeping and reporting cumulative data, the database seemed a natural choice to share with other agencies that loan assistive devices. In fact, North Carolina has been approached by agencies from other states who are interested in using the CIO database. We are considering marketing this database beginning in the Spring of 1998. Interested persons should contact Jennifer Ray at 704-336-6630.
Provision of the database was seen as an important element to attracting participants. It offered agencies an effective means for handling internal record keeping and a consistent format for gathering and sharing loan inventory information across the state. In addition, the built-in reports provided a simple method for identifying program trends. As further incentive, the database provided automation so that agencies could update their inventory information on the Web site with just a few button clicks.
Perhaps the most important factor in attracting participants to the CIO project was the promise of free training and technical assistance for both the database and the web site. This was essential for building success as many sites had limited or no experience with using a database or the WWW. Just as important as the offer for assistance was CIO participants' willingness to learn and an enthusiasm for providing better service to consumers.
The CIO project is just entering its second year. The majority of the first year was spent soliciting participation, planning, building and testing the web site, and implementing the first round of training to participants. Currently the network is comprised of 17 participating agencies. Long term plans involve expanding to include additional sites each year. As year two gets under way, new agencies are coming aboard and a formal project awareness-raising campaign will be put in motion. Project partners are excited at the prospect of a real impact on the accessibility of equipment loan programs throughout the state.
The web site is located at www.check-it-out.org. In addition to providing access to equipment loans, it also provides basic information on assistive technology, a training calendar, other assistive technology related links, and descriptions of the participating agencies and their loan criteria. We are planning to add a photo gallery of assistive technology users in the future.
It is collaboration and forward-thinking program personnel that make the project possible. CIO is funded by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Maternal and Child Health and by the North Carolina Assistive Technology Project. Collaborative partnerships have also been established with Mecklenburg County Preschool Services, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities/Substance Abuse Services, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the Department of Administration through the Governor's Advocacy Council for Person's with Disabilities, and the North Carolina Assistive Technology Consortium.
Each of these partners has committed resources to the CIO project with the belief that it will enhance service provision in North Carolina. Their commitment and the dedication of service providers throughout the state are helping to shape a bright future for North Carolina's assistive technology system.
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