Government agencies and education institutions have increased the use of smart technologies to assist the disabled. But federal funding remains an issue.
Smart technologies, such as robotic telepresence and the Internet of Things (IoT), are capturing the attention of adaptive technology programs in state and local governments, as well as educational institutions, according to experts.
State and local governments, as well as educational institutions, are trying to address a number of disabilities, including citizens who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing, have speech impairments, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, are blind or have low vision.
Augmentative communication devices are among the top three categories for adaptive technology, said Susy Woods, public policy and education liaison for Illinois’ Assistive Technology Program. Illinois is also an agency member of ATAP.
Robotic telepresence, which allows users to communicate with others through a robot even though they are not physically present in the room, is gaining attention, according to Kim Moccia, program director for assistive technology at Minnesota’s Department of Administration. The state, for example, provides short-term loans of its double robot through its AT program.
“We plan to increase the number of robots in our inventory due to increased demand, especially by school districts,” says Moccia, who is also an ATAP board member.
A double robot is a combination Apple iPad and Segway scooter that uses video conferencing to allow a person with disabilities to move from room to work at school or at work without them having to be present.
Text-to-911 services for deaf or hard-of-hearing residents are also spreading throughout the nation, including Palm Beach County, Fla., and Franklin County, Ohio. North Carolina is working with its Department of Public Safety to deploy text-to-911 services to its disabled residents, according to Tammy Koger, director of North Carolina’s Assistive Technology Program.
Home environment devices that allow the rising number of senior citizens to remain in their homes as well as assistive technology that addresses blindness or low vision are two other AT categories that states are trying to address, said Woods.
Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomePod allow users to use their voice to shut off lights and lock and unlock doors. IoT devices, such as these, hold the potential for helping states cut long-term care costs for people with disabilities, say industry observers.
Meanwhile, the number of people with developmental disabilities continues to rise while the technologies to assist them are also expected to increase. For example, the number of children who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of 8 has soared to one in every 68, based on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study — an increase of 150 percent since 2000, CNN reported.
“These figures will continue to rise because we have gotten better at diagnosing autism and at a younger age,” Woods explained.
Minnesota now has 16 police departments that are using the Vitals app, which allows families and caregivers to enter diagnosis information about their developmentally disabled family member, along with information on things that will trigger their behavior and ways to de-escalate such behavior. When an officer is within 30 to 80 feet of the developmentally disabled person, the information is shared wirelessly with the officer to guide them on the best way to approach the individual. More police departments are expected to sign aboard, according to Moccia.
Following the reauthorization of the Assistive Technology Act in 2004, the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) now distributes money to mandated state AT programs. These programs serve four core assistive technology areas: demonstration and awareness training of AT projects, an AT equipment loan program for citizens, a re-utilization program where equipment in good condition can be reused for as long as the citizen needs it and state financing to help people borrow money at low interest rates for AT equipment purchases.
Historicallly, the federal budget has never fully funded the AT programs that the states are required to provide. However, in fiscal 2019, the budget will distribute an additional $38 million for state AT programs, Woods noted. The distribution is based partially on the state’s population and when they started their AT program.
In addition to the funding challenges, gaining awareness of AT issues and addressing them through policies and legislation is a challenge, according to AT experts.
“North Carolina needs more emphasis on technology-related policies, access to services and devices, and funding for these types of services and devices,” said Koger. “In addition, exposure and employment opportunities continue to be an issue specifically with individuals with the most severe disabilities and who utilize assistive technology.”
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