2004 Conference Proceedings

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OPENING AN ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY LAB: LESSONS LEARNED

Presenters
Hector Requenez, MS
AT Lab Coordinator
Department of Rehabilitation-Project Enhance
University of Texas-Pan American
1201 West University Drive, Rehab Annex
Edinburg, TX 78541
Phone: 956-292-7409
Fax: 956-292-7405<>/p Email: hectorr@panam.edu

Yvette Flores, MS, CRC
Training Coordinator
Department of Rehabilitation-Project Enhance
University of Texas-Pan American
1201 West University Drive, Rehab Annex
Edinburg, TX 78541
Phone: 956-292-7406
Fax: 956-292-7405
Email: mflores11@panam.edu

Bruce Reed, Ph.D. CRC, CVE
Project Director
Department of Rehabilitation
University of Texas-Pan American
1201 West University Drive
Edinburg, TX 78541
Phone: 956-316-7036
Fax: 956-318-5237

Setting up an assistive technology (AT) lab can be a daunting prospect. Not only are there numerous devices to consider, but the cost of many of those devices can be prohibitive. AT lab coordinators quickly find themselves trying to justify purchasing one device over another. This presentation will briefly discuss how Project Enhance, housed in the Department of Rehabilitation at the University of Texas-Pan American, established its AT lab and the lessons learned. Included are the purpose of the Project Enhance AT Lab, how adaptive equipment was prioritized, funding strategies, and recommendations. Throughout this presentation the authors suggest that there is no one best way to establish an AT lab; presented here is our experiences

Overview: AT & AT Legislation

Assistive technology has been defined as items or services that increase the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities (Fried, Reed, and Rhoades, 1995). These items can vary from low-tech items, such as using a grabber to reach something on a desk, to high-tech items, such as laser activated communication boards. AT devices allow individuals with disabilities to engage as contributing members of society and are credited with helping people with disabilities achieve peek functional ability and independence (Riemer-Reiss, 2000). It allows individuals to minimize limitations while maximizing strengths (Raskind, Higgins, & Eleanor, 1995). Assistive technology has also been recognized as an avenue for people with disabilities to access mainstream society (Riemer-Reiss, 2000). Further, AT can be used as a way of equalizing the capabilities of both individuals with and without disabilities. This has also been observed by Fried, Reed, and Rhoades (1995) who stated that AT can affect all aspects of an individuals life including education, social, recreation, mobility, work, activities of daily living, and transportation to name a few. As reported by Riemer-Reiss (2000) more than 17 million Americans with disabilities utilized an assistive technology device in 1994.

AT devices and services have benefited people with disabilities in many settings including at postsecondary institutions. The use of AT is often a critical component of successfully entering and completing a postsecondary education.

Purpose of the Project Enhance AT Lab

Project Enhance is funded by the U.S. Department of Education from the Office of Postsecondary Education. Project Enhance is a national project designed to improve postsecondary services to students with disabilities. We are located in deep south Texas about 10 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. As such, the local demographics are about 90% Hispanic. Project Enhance has as a primary focus assisting other Hispanic Serving Institutions with developing their disability support services (DSS). An important component of providing disability related services is AT.

The purpose of the Project Enhance AT lab is to provide students with disabilities access to and training in the types of assistive technology that are available to help them be more successful as students at the postsecondary level. Although much of the equipment focuses on computer applications, other types of devices such as CCTVs, low vision aids, digital recorders, adaptive switches, environmental control units, and assistive hearing devices are also available.

The AT lab is used to provide training to students, administrators, faculty, and staff regarding the types of AT available and how they can improve the recruitment, retention, and graduation of students with disabilities. The AT lab is also available, on a limited basis, to community members such as educators, rehabilitation counselors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, mental health counselors, and others who work with individuals with disabilities and the families of individuals with disabilities to examine and tryout the technology that is housed in the lab.

Typical activities of the lab include:

Demonstrations,
AT training,
AT evaluation for students with disabilities,
Information & referrals,
Technical assistance,
"Open house" twice per month for community entities,
and as a field training site for students interested in AT.

Prioritizing Assistive Equipment

There appears to be no hard and fast rule as to how to prioritize the acquiring of assistive technology. This will depend on the needs of the target consumers and the limitations of your budget. Since Project Enhance is in a university setting prioritizing was a matter of working with the Office of Services for Persons with Disabilities and determining the types of disabilities that currently enrolled students possess. This being said, it is the authors opinions that an AT lab should attempt to acquire adaptive equipment to meet the needs of the widest range of disability groups. For example, the popular screen reading software JAWS© is typically thought of as being useful to individuals with visual impairments, but it might also be helpful to individuals with learning and/or reading disabilities.

Another thought on technology is, whenever possible, to acquire multiple versions of a product. For example, with voice output computer technology, it is ideal to have various examples by different vendors. In this way, users are allowed to "test drive" products and decide which is best for them.

Funding Strategies

Funding is always a barrier in establishing and maintaining technology labs. Seldom does one have the luxury of being able to purchase every new device that is needed. Therefore, maximizing funding is critical. Potential funding sources can include grants, state vendors, and donations. Grants can be a wonderful source for equipping an AT lab as long as they are tied to the purposes of the grant. There is an incredible amount of grant monies available (federal, state, and foundations) but the expression of "there is no free money" is true. Outcomes associated with the grant are required. As an example, Project Enhance was able to fund about $60,000 in the first year to establish the AT lab.

In a postsecondary setting, state funds can also be utilized for AT. However, the reality is that funds are usually very limited unless they are tied into student services fees. Many DSS offices simply don't have enough funding via state sources to maintain their technology labs. Active advocacy for funds by key administrators will, of course, help.

Don't be shy about asking vendors to place display models of their equipment in a lab. Vision Technology Inc (VTI), for example, agreed to place three of their CCTV systems in the lab. This is a win-win situation for the lab and VTI as the lab gets three CCTVs for free and VTI gets its products demonstrated to potential customers.

Donations can help support the lab. These can come from individuals or agencies that no longer need the devices. For example, our lab received a donation of equipment from the area Independent Living Center and Easter Seals. Articles in local newspapers indicating a need for donations that are tax exempt can be fruitful. Many times, however, donations of equipment are outdated or one-of-a-kind types. Some of these might be useful, however, as showing a range of technological examples.

Recommendations

Again, please remember that the experiences of each AT lab are unique; there is no one right way. The following are our recommendations based upon our experiences.

Remember physical accessibility. It can be easy to forget when placing equipment in the lab to keep the area and the equipment as accessible as possible. As the Project Enhance AT Lab began to acquire equipment the lab quickly became cluttered with boxes, manuals, and other odds and ends. Individuals with disabilities often require more room to maneuver.

Hidden costs. Devices such as digital recorders, talking dictionaries, talking calculators, alarms, etc. require batteries and memory cards. While these items may not cost much individually, they can add up quickly. Also software has a relatively short shelf-life; it will need to be replaced.

Security. Our personal style is fairly open and accommodating. However, when it becomes public knowledge that this lab area has many thousands of dollars in equipment, much of it small and easy to pocket, security issues become important. Create an accurate inventory list.

Remember your key constituents. For example, if the lab is primarily designed for students, limit the amount of community access to the lab so the students get what they are entitled to.

References

Fried, J. H., Reed, B. J., & Rhoades, B. J. (1995). Empowerment and assistive technology: The local resource team model. Journal of Rehabilitation, Apr-Jun95, Vol. 61 Issue 2, p30, 6p.

Raskind, M. & H.-Higgins, E. L. (1995). Reflections on ethics, technology, and learning disabilities: avoiding the consequences of…Journal of Learning Disabilities.

Riemer-Reiss, M. L. (2000). Factors associated with assistive technology discontinuance among individuals with disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation, 66(3).

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