Consumer Responsiveness: Finding Out What It Means By Asking

By Karen S. Franklin

This article is reprinted from the A.T. Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 4 (1990)

During the first week of October 1990, directors from all 23 "Tech Act" funded states met in Washington, DC. to learn about the RESNA Technical Assistance Project and to network with one another. The opening session, moderated by Project Associate Patricia Beattie, covered the major themes within P.L. 100-407, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, such as the new definition of assistive technology, the fact that all individuals in the state are to be served, and consumer-responsiveness. But the one issue which all of the participants seemed most interested in was the concept of consumer-responsiveness.

Personnel from each state project wanted to learn as much as possible about how others were going about developing assistive technology services that are truly responsive to the needs and preferences of people with disabilities and their families. Several of the state projects discussed various ways their states are trying to meet this challenge such as:

As the discussion progressed one of the new state directors asked the question why Pat was using the term consumer-responsiveness, instead of some of the terms used traditionally by the consumer movement (i.e., consumer involvement, consumer control) and how does this impact the systems that the states are providing?

Project directors from States that were recently funded were curious as to why the term consumer-responsiveness was being used instead of one traditionally used by the disability movement like "consumer involvement" or"consumer control." The directors also wondered how this choice of terminology would impact upon efforts to bring about assistive technology systems change in the States.

The response could quickly and easily have been that we use the term "consumer-responsive" because it is the language in the legislation and simply left it at that. But the issues underlying the questions were important ones and deserved to be fully discussed. After all, Congress did not incorporate the term "consumer-responsive" into the "Tech Act" just to create a new polysyllabic phrase and leave it at that. It did so spark controversy, discussion and debate among people with disabilities, their families, advocates, practitioners, policy makers and others regarding what the entire design and delivery of A.T. services should look like in our country. Hence, it is only by constantly grappling with this new concept that we will come to define it and really understand what makes for truly consumer responsive assistive technology services.

The key to all this is continuing dialogue. With this in mind, individuals like Susan Daniels, Kathy Gradel and others have proposed that, in defining what we want "consumer-responsiveness" to really mean, we need to look to the principles of "consumerism" in the marketplace as our guide. Consumerism in the marketplace has come to mean that individuals want the four Big Cs:

For any of us who have been around the disability field for any length of time, we realize that this list does not describe the A.T. services children and adults with disabilities typically receive. However, we must not settle for anything less.

That is why, in designing and providing A.T. services in the States, we should repeatedly be asking ourselves key questions like: What do consumers really expect from services? Also, how does what we are trying to do match up with those expectations? This is why in each issue of the A.T. Quarterly beginning with this one, we will be asking people with disabilities to briefly share with us their thoughts on what makes some assistive technology services "consumer responsive" and others not on the least attentive to individual needs or differences.

We believe that this will not only add to the discussion but help to clarify some of the issues related to consumer-responsiveness. Hence, if you know anyone who would like to make his or her views known on the subject, pass their names along to us. Also, while you are at it, pass along your own thoughts and feelings on the subject.

* The S.M.A.R.T. Exchange Quality Indicators, 2nd printing (revised July 1989). Available from S.M.A.R.T. Exchange, P.O. Box 724704, Atlanta, GA 30339.

The A.T. Quarterly was a newsletter developed by the RESNA TA Project under a contract with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), U.S. Department of Education (ED). The content, however, does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of NIDRR/ED and no official endorsement of the material should be inferred.

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