1998 Conference Proceedings

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UNITED WE STAND: SETTING UP AN ASSISTIVE DEVICES INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION

Chuck Letourneau
Starling Access Services
cpl@starlingweb.com; 

Mary Frances Laughton
Industry Canada
Assistive Devices Industry Office
laughton@clark.dgim.doc.ca 

Deb. Finn
Industry Canada
Assistive Devices Industry Office
finn.deb@ic.gc.ca

Chuck Letourneau, one of the founders of the Assisitive Devices Industry Association of Canada, undertook the research and prepared the documentation for its establishment. Mary Frances Laughton and Deb Finn are the Government of Canada officials who provided initial support for the founding of the association.

In early February 1997, a small group of people were invited by the Canadian Federal Government to meet in Ottawa to discuss the possibility of setting up a Canadian Assistive Devices Industry Association. About a month after that exploratory meeting, a larger group of Canadian assistive device developers, manufacturers and vendors convened right here at CSUN and talked it over. The response of these people was largely positive. It was generally agreed that since the field of assistive devices is one that has grown in importance to the Canadian economy over the last decade and since much more can be done in this area, it was high time the industry had its own distinctive voice. Six months after the Los Angeles meeting, CanADIA, the Assistive Devices Industry Association of Canada, was incorporated.

There were compelling reasons to establish CanADIA not the least of which was a request from the Canadian Deputy Minister of Industry to the Industry Minister's Advisory Committee on Assistive Devices to look into the formation of such an association to allow the Government a single point of contact with this growing industry sector.

Although many of the Association's potential members belonged to other, more general trade or manufacturing associations, a separate voice was needed to advocate on behalf of an industry whose focal point is a set of widely diverse, and not always overlapping, niche markets. The nature of assistive technology is such, moreover, that many of the developers, especially at the high-tech end of the assistive device spectrum, are small companies, working in isolation from one another, often perceiving themselves as "lone voices in the wilderness". Such companies need a way to establish and maintain contact with one another. This is a role that can be well played by an industry association like CanADIA.

From time to time, companies in any industry find it necessary to deal with some level of government. If there is a problem that needs to be resolved on an industry-wide basis, say, a question concerning the imposition of import or export duties on a specific class of goods, one of the first questions the bureaucracy will ask is, "Do these companies have an association to represent them?" The fact is, like it or not, that an association gives its members not only an identity, but an enhanced credibility. Advocacy can be far more effective when it is done by an association that can speak on behalf 100 member organizations than by 100 individual companies, each of whom may be seen as speaking only for themselves.

Long before the stage was reached where legal incorporation of the Association was necessary, a few fundamental questions were raised:

* Does anybody want an assistive devices industry association?

The first of these questions was answered with the aid of a general survey of Canadian assistive devices organizations that had at one time or another indicated to Industry Canada that they would like to be kept informed of government and business developments in their field of endeavour. The survey was also posted on the World Wide Web on a site being used as a test site for an industry association under contract to the Government's Assistive Devices Industry Office. In January 1997, over 500 organizations were sent the survey and about 10% of them had replied by the middle of March. Support for the idea of setting up an association was nearly unanimous. If the response to this survey had been negative, the matter would have been dropped, there and then. This is a key point to note, because there is little point in continuing with the establishment of an association if its potential members don't see any need for its creation.

While the survey questionnaire was under development, research was also underway to examine the corporate and administrative structures of comparable industry associations, their overall missions and goals, their membership structures and the benefits provided to their members. An association has to suit the requirements of its members and by finding out how other associations serve their constituencies, a range of options could be identified for the eventual structure of CanADIA. A number of associations were examined, ranging from the very large to the relatively small and specialized.

By the time the Canadian industry participants assembled at CSUN, enough information had been gathered about associations in general to lay out some of the structure options, possible member benefits and obligations and some possible activities that could be undertaken by the association. It was made clear at that meeting that although the Government of Canada was involved insofar as Industry Canada had provided the financial resources necessary to explore the possibility of establishing CanADIA, all of the decision-making would rest with the founding members, who would not under any circumstances include anybody in the federal bureaucracy.

Of particular concern was the issue of membership: who could qualify, and what would the requirements be?

At the CSUN meeting, it was suggested that there should be only one level of membership -- full membership for companies that manufactured or developed assistive devices. It was felt that this would reduce complexity and ease the launch of the association. The possibility of allowing associate or other types of membership could be considered later, hen the group had a clearer idea of its direction and goals.

Following the CSUN meeting, discussions continued with the core group that had initially met in February and a number of thorny issues were resolved. One complication was the definition of "assistive devices". Too liberal a definition might be interpreted to encompass medical devices, which would cross the line into the realm of an existing industry association. Too conservative a definition might exclude some legitimate, but very targeted players. It was finally agreed that CanADIA would use the ADA definition of and assistive device, which reads:

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

Another complication was the interpretation of the term "industry", and who or what were manufacturers and developers. It became clear that there was considerable variation in how some potential members did business. Some were mostly manufacturers who also did direct-to-consumer sales; some were mostly vendors who were also involved in product development or limited manufacturing; some were non-profit organizations with strong development or manufacturing ties; and so on. It was decided that it was better to err on the side of flexibility than to appear exclusionary.

As discussions progressed, it became clear that it would be a disservice to both the association and to everyone else if the importance of the network of community organizations, research groups, universities, and assistive device consultants and specialists was not recognized in the membership structure. This was especially true since one of the best aspects of the assistive device industry has been the close relationship it has had with its end-users and because one of the important goals of CanADIA would be to foster better technology transfer opportunities.

The final decision before incorporation was to include an educational membership level, to encourage students involved in programs that would focus on assistive device design and development.

Early in November, 1997, CanADIA's founders met again in Ottawa to elect a provisional Board of Directors. The Board drew up a list of the activities that could realistically be taken in the association's first year of operation and topping this list was the launch of a membership drive. CanADIA offers three levels of membership: a full membership at $195 per year, which will be open to Canadian developers and manufacturers who have been working in the assistive device field for at least two years; an associate (ie., non-voting) membership at $75 per year, which will be open to other interested Canadian organizations or individuals who have an interest in the assistive device industry; and an educational membership at $25 for students interested in assistive devices and registered at an educational institution. Membership is open only to Canadian organizations or individuals that meet these criteria. Within a month of the distribution of membership information and application forms, CanADIA had 15 members and this number is still growing.

CHECKLIST FOR THE CREATION OF AN INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION

1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK:

a. Is there is a need for a new association?

* There may be sound business reasons to justify an association of competitors in your particular market sector. Build a business case. List those benefits that you have identified.

b. Is there a desire for an association?

* Survey the businesses that make up your industry.

Present them with your business case. Ask them what they might like from an association.

* Survey associated players: Are there research organizations associated with your industry?

Universities with related programs? Are there consultants or consulting groups that have an impact on your industry or market?

* Survey your target consumer groups: Do they see any benefit in such an association? If interest is strong, proceed. Improve the business case with suggestions made by the potential membership or affected parties.

c. Is there an existing organization that might suit your needs?

* Look at the membership of similar organizations.

Are companies from your industry segment well represented? If not, there may be enough differences in market segment or philosophy to warrant a new association.

2. BUILDING FROM SCRATCH:

a. What are the rules and regulations that relate to an industry organization?

* Check with your regional or federal government's industry regulators for laws regarding such entities.

b. Is help available to guide you through the steps to create an association?

c. Do you have a core group of people willing to devote the necessary time?

* In Canada, incorporating a not-for-profit organization requires at least three signatories willing to act as provisional directors.


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