2000 Conference Proceedings

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e-ACT: A Service Delivery Model for the New Millennium

Mostafa Zommo and Andrew Costello
Human Resources Development Canada
Hull, Quebec, Canada

Introduction

Over the last decade there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who use computers and a rapid advancement in technology for persons with disabilities. These factors have combined to create a relatively young, but thriving industry - Adaptive Computer Technology (ACT). This industry consists of individuals and organizations that specialize in hardware and software products, education and training, research and development and other services for persons who cannot use a computer with traditional input and output devices.

The same technological advances that have helped develop the ACT Industry have also significantly changed the manner and medium through which Information Technology (IT) solutions are provided to clients. The ACT client service model has gradually evolved from using traditional client service approaches to ones that are more technology-enhanced. This new model combines innovative internet technologies and strategic partnerships to provide more efficient services. We call this new model e-ACT.

This paper will describe this shift in ACT service delivery to e-ACT and will explain it's key benefits. Finally we will briefly describe how Human Resources Development Canada plans to apply e-ACT to a new service called CAN-ACT.

Models of ACT Client Service

In the traditional ACT service model, service providers:

In the e-ACT service model, service providers:

The Internet as a Service Delivery Tool

The Internet is a very powerful service delivery tool. The principal business advantage of using the internet (specifically the World Wide Web or the 'Web') is that it can provide clients with access to information 24 hours a day from remote locations around the world. Clients can access information at their own leisure without having to deal with time zones, long distance charges, voice mail or office hours. In addition, the Web is an ideal environment for promoting collaboration among different service providers since a web site can contain hyperlinks to many other ACT organizations.

The rise of e-commerce (on-line banking, shopping etc.) has demonstrated that many people prefer self-serve opportunities when conducting business or searching for information. The role of the service provider in this environment is that of the facilitator, to make sure that users have all the tools necessary to find a solution on their own. This is ideal for clients who, for privacy reasons, may not feel comfortable with speaking directly with an ACT practitioner.

It must be stressed that ACT services cannot be provided exclusively over the Web. Not only do many persons prefer human interaction when seeking solutions, but many do not have access to the internet or a computer. This is particularly true for ACT clients, since they will often require our services before they can use a computer or access the Web. The need for ACT has arisen due to the mistaken assumption that everyone can use computers in a universal manner using the same input and output devices. In providing service exclusively over the Web, one risks adopting a similar universal approach to client service. Since information provided on a web site cannot cover all possible combinations of client requirements and preferences, it can only serve to provide a general overview of ACT products and solutions. Clients will still often require contact with an ACT practitioner before an appropriate solution can be found. e-ACT is a service delivery medium that augments or supplements existing ACT services. It does not replace them.

Solutions Through Collaboration

Persons best suited to provide expertise on ACT are often those who use its products the most - ACT users. Users often provide the most relevant comments about product quality, they provide useful tips sometimes not considered by vendors and they often have good troubleshooting experience. They should be an integral part of the solution and follow-up process, apart from client satisfaction surveys or suggestion boxes. e-ACT can provide users with opportunities to contribute their knowledge and experience to deriving and communicating ACT solutions through email listserves, discussion groups and on-line chat rooms.

Service providers need not personally provide all solutions to clients, only opportunities for solutions to be generated. This can be accomplished by facilitating peer-to-peer communication, by referring clients to other service providers and by creating strategic partnerships with service providers, disability advocates, government officials, IT professionals, research institutes, hospitals and any other organizations that deal with technology and persons with disabilities. A key benefit of strategic partnerships is that service providers can focus their energy and budgets on providing unique services to clients and avoid needless duplication as well as competition with other ACT organizations.

Who is the Client?

The internet allows service providers to significantly increase their potential client base by offering information and on-line services to people throughout the world 24 hours a day. e-ACT not only changes the number, but also the type of clients a service provider can reach. We must therefore carefully consider the question of 'Who is the client?'.

The sustainability of many ACT industries is directly related to the degree to which mainstream hardware and software products remain inaccessible for persons with disabilities. For example, there are many ACT software developers who create software products (particularly screen magnification and voice output) that could be incorporated into standard operating systems for use by all computer users. In addition, there are IT solutions provided by ACT specialists that could easily be accomplished by general IT professionals. However, for this to occur the major players in the IT industry need to be convinced of the need to consider accessibility issues as part of their general business philosophy and not to treat ACT as a separate, isolated branch of the computing industry. It is vital, therefore, that ACT solution providers work not only with clients who do or potentially could use ACT products but also with individuals and organizations that are responsible for creating or fostering inaccessible computer systems. This pro-active approach not only helps to create greater awareness of accessibility issues outside of the ACT community, but it also generates a far-reaching solution without waiting for ACT users to encounter a problem and request service.

Another issue that arises from the question of "Who is the client?" deals with how ACT solution providers market themselves. Many ACT organizations place emphasis on the fact that they primarily serve persons with disabilities. The problem with this marketing approach is that most people have a very narrow definition of what constitutes a disability. As a result, persons with disabling conditions that could benefit from ACT do not use ACT services since they do not self-identify as having a disability. This particular circumstance often occurs among persons who have repetitive strain injuries. A related client identification problem is that many people have the mistaken belief that all persons with disabilities require ACT to use computer systems. For example, the wheelchair is often used as a universal disability symbol, yet ironically enough, many persons in wheelchairs do not require ACT.

The close association with the term 'adaptive' or 'assistive technology' and 'disabled' or 'disability' has managed to further isolate the ACT industry from the general computing population and has clearly limited it's potential client base. Rather than attempting the tortuous task of clearly defining the term 'disabled' the ACT community should take steps to market themselves as providing alternative computer solutions for everyone - either due to personal preference or necessity.

CAN-ACT

The above issues have led the Adaptive Computer Technology Centre at Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC-ACT) to initiate the development of the Canadian Adaptive Computer Technology Network (CAN-ACT).

CAN-ACT aims to be a single point of contact for all persons requiring ACT services. As a facilitator, its primary function will be to help clients to identify products, service providers, legislation and all other relevant information about ACT issues. Although the service will maintain a strong Web presence, it will also allow clients to access our services directly using other media such as the telephone, email and on-site visits.

CAN-ACT will include the following key components:

ACT-Solutions

CAN-ACT will attempt to identify and make available an exhaustive database of solutions to the most common ACT issues. Information will include general assessment approaches, product selection ideas, technical troubleshooting guides, tips and suggestions and links to ACT service providers (vendors, trainers, clinics, disability organizations etc.).

Client Service

CAN-ACT will respond to client inquiries made via email, telephone/TTY or on-site visits.

Research & Testing

CAN-ACT will evaluate new software and hardware products that are introduced to the market. They will provide critical, unbiased reviews and post them in the Cybrary.

Consulting Services

CAN-ACT will consult with policy makers, IT professionals, service delivery agencies and other organizations on how to implement accessible products and services to the public. The goal of this section will be to increase awareness of accessibility issues outside of the disability community.

Cybrary:

CAN-ACT will identify and collect publications and written material on ACT that will be either posted on the CAN-ACT web site or made accessible via hyperlinks to the original source. Where necessary, some documentation will be translated and posted in French (one of the two official languages of Canada).

Cyber-Neighborhoods:

Internet discussion groups will be created to provide on-line meeting places where interested user groups will be able to post and discuss issues of common interest. This will allow more client input into the solution generation process.

The CAN-ACT initiative represents the convergence of traditional ACT service delivery and e-business. We are confident that this project will contribute significantly to the increase of computer usage by persons with disabilities and will generate greater awareness of ACT issues within the general population.


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