Assistive Technology -- Making It Work For People On The Job

By Robert R. Williams

This article is reprinted from the A.T. Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 2 (1990).

Employment prospects are extremely bleak for most people with disabilities in the U.S. A 1986 poll by Louis Harris showed that fully two-thirds of all working-age Americans with disabilities still do not work in our country. In fact, Harris and his associates believe that "not working is perhaps the truest definition of what it means to be disabled" (Harris, 1986).

But, there is ample reason to believe that things may soon be looking up for current and prospective employees with disabilities in the 9 to 5 work day world. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will surely eliminate much of the prejudice and environmental barriers which have prevented so many people from working in the past.

In a slightly different way, assistive technology is already fast at work, chipping away at many of the same stereotypes and hurdles. Thanks to increasing public awareness, even some traditional naysayers now stand in awe of the powerful, key role assistive technology can play in enabling individuals with the most severe disabilities to work in ways never thought possible before.

For example, assistive technology in the form of a Touch Talker, a word processor and a TV teleprompter is enabling Jim Prentice to manage an extensive database of statistical information for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

More recently, a voice activated Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD) device has given new hope to Larry McAfee, who five years ago became severely disabled in a motorcycle accident, of resuming a promising engineering career. Last summer McAfee won a case in the Georgia Supreme Court to switch off his ventilator with a specially crafted device of his design. Now, technology of a different sort is holding out promise to him of exerting a new kind of control in life: that of leading a self-initiated lifestyle, making choices and living by their consequences.

In my own case, a package of assistive devices including a Touch Talker, a slightly modified Macintosh computer, a voice activated phone and a fax machine holds just as great a promise of enabling me to influence federal policy for all Americans with disabilities in ways still unimaginable to most people. In reality, though, as great as this promise is, it has yet to come to full fruition. Why? Because as with anything new, innovative and relatively complex, there have been glitches, snags, compatibility problems and corresponding delays in getting this series of devices to really work alongside of me to make me my productive best. The overall experience has been frustrating, draining and often downright maddening for all concerned. That does not mean that it has not been worth it or that a lot of good will not ultimately come out of it.

But, what it does mean is that for all the good that it can do to assist people to be productive and get the job done, assistive technology should never be seen as a magic solution. That is because making assistive technology work for individuals with severe disabilities on the job takes a great deal of hard work in and of itself. More than this, though, making technology work for people on the job must start with a commitment. That is, the person with a disability and his or her current or prospective employer must agree to work and problem-solve together. Each must commit to invest whatever time, creative energy, cooperation and financial resources it takes to find the best way assistive technology can be put to work for the individual on his or her actual job.

Absent such a commitment, it is likely that the right assistive technology solution or job modification never will be found. In fact, minus a working commitment on the part of both the employee and their employer, the very best and latest in assistive devices purchased for the individual may wind up on someone else's bookshelf rather than on the person's desk being used where it belongs. An assistive device which just sits and gathers dust on a shelf is much more than a waste of valuable time, energy and resources. In a very real sense, it represents a great many dreams deferred for all concerned as well.

Practically no assistive device should ever sit idle or unused. But to avoid this will require that the employee with a severe disability, his or her employer, and others involved in designing or offering job supports, commit to working together to:

1. Ensure that both the employer and employee play an informed role in assessing and selecting the right assistive device to enable the individual to perform the right job.

2. Deliver the assistive technology to whom, when and where it is needed. A device which arrives two to three weeks after someone starts work or one which cannot be put to immediate practical use is likely to be put on the shelf.

3. Actually show rather than just tell the employee and employer how a particular device can produce real on the job results. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, an actual demonstration of what a device or given technology "can do" is worth at least ten times that much.

4. Recognize the time and effort it has taken for the person who is not a current user of AT to get this far in life without the benefit of such aids or devices. Never denigrate that individual for "choosing" to use an "antiquated" manual communication board. It only will bring out the seven year old in all of us and memories of being told that if only we'd press our tongue more tightly against our teeth, we could say the word "TALK" ourselves and thus not have to rely on that "funny board."

5. Recognize, too, that persons with severe disabilities have probably spent years being their own best rehabilitation technologists. The tools and methods they have developed over the years may not be as "high tech" as some approaches. But, in many (though clearly not all) instances, these self-designed measures may make the individual just as effective and productive on the job as any other which could be thought up by an entire bevy of rehabilitation technologists.

6. Respect the fact that someone who has invested a lifetime in coming up with their own ways and means of getting through life in a fairly hostile world is apt to be extremely stubborn out of necessity. People with cerebral palsy are often chastised for relying on associated movements caused by changes in muscle tone to do things independently. Yet, if we are not shown another way to do the same thing, we will likely continue on as before. Similarly, telling rather than actually showing an employee with a severe disability how assistive technology can make their life and work easier will likely not be enough to yield the intended results.

7. Point fingers at unsolved problems and their potential solutions rather than at one another. Assistive technology holds out a great many promises for people with disabilities and their employers. But it is no panacea. Problems--some quite thorny and complicated--are bound to arise. When they do, resist the temptation to assign blame, problem-solve instead.

8. Do not expect the employee to necessarily experience a great deal of overnight results, success or personal satisfaction in using a new assistive device. Learning to use a device (just like learning to use a computer) can be time consuming and frustrating. It also can temporarily take away from your productivity when you want to be your most productive.

9. Realize that some of the most powerful lessons we can gain in life come as a result of learning by doing. Others have stressed the importance of introducing preschoolers to the practical everyday uses and wonders of assistive technology as a sure fire way of getting them hooked on it as soon as possible. Employees with severe disabilities need to be given the same range of opportunities to learn about assistive technology while doing and being productive at what they paid (increasingly good money) to do.

10. And, finally, always remember to KISS (Keep It Simple and Straightforward) as much as possible. That is, Keep It as Simple and Straightforward as much as possible. The fewer dangling cords, intertwined interfaces, compatibility hang-ups and other potential glitches that an assistive technology user has to deal with on a daily basis, the more likely he or she will be to use a particular device.

Following these ten steps will not be enough to entirely address all the issues which will inevitably arise out of all our efforts to bring needed assistive technology to people with severe disabilities at their workplaces. But it is hoped that doing so may help us to both clarify and work through a great many of the critical challenges which lay ahead.

A slightly different version of this article appears in the Summer, 1990 UCPA Networker.

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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