Reach Out And Touch:
Serving The Un- And Under-Served

"Reach out and touch somebody's hand, make this world a better place if you can." (Song by Diana Ross)

M. Nell Bailey

This article is reprinted from the A.T. Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 5(1991).

The RESNA Technical Assistance Project has held six different meetings involving state personnel, agencies, representatives from organizations, and consumers interested in assistive technology. In looking at the participants of the various meetings, it is apparent that representation from underserved groups is sorely lacking. If we are not adequately involving individuals from underserved groups in our meetings, the question becomes: are we involving them and providing services to them through the state technology-related assistance programs? Unfortunately, in most instances, the answer to this question appears to be: no, we are not--at least, not as well as we could or should be doing.

When Congress passed the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act in July of 1988, its overall goal was to expand and improve access to assistive technology services and devices for all individuals with disabilities. Title I of the Act calls on states to develop and implement a consumer-responsive statewide program of technology-related assistance for individuals with disabilities. States have flexibility in developing these programs. But each state's technology-related assistance program must meet some key mandates. Each must be consumer-responsive, comprehensive, and offer statewide services. Moreover, these programs must serve individuals of all ages and varying disabilities. The Tech Act also makes clear that in developing and delivering state A.T. services, special attention must be paid to reaching out to and serving persons belonging to traditionally un- or underserved groups.

Who are the Un- and Underserved?

The Tech Act defines an underserved group as "any group of individuals with disabilities who, because of disability, place of residence, geographic location, age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status, have not historically sought, been eligible for, or received technology-related assistance." Under-served groups include elderly people, culturally diverse populations such as African-Americans, Native American Indians, non-English speaking persons, persons living in rural, isolated areas, persons with multiple disabilities such as deaf-blindness, and persons who are medically fragile or persons with AIDS. This list is not inclusive, however. There are likely a number of other groups that fall into the category of underserved based on the definition given above. Assistive technology services addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities representing different cultures, religious beliefs, languages with a variety of dialects, socioeconomic classes and levels of education as well as varying degrees of acculturation and assimilation will need to be ethnically and culturally tailored.

Serving the Underserved

Each underserved group has its own unique characteristics which requires a unique, creative and innovative service delivery strategy. Although a disability is dealt with in unique ways in different ethnic communities, persons with disabilities as a whole share a common experience and common goals: to be independent, productive and included in all aspects of life.

Technology can play a powerful role in enhancing independence, productivity and inclusion by providing opportunities for individuals of varying ages and disabilities across all programs and major life activities. These opportunities include early intervention, education, rehabilitation and training, employment, residential living, independent living and recreation.

In serving underserved groups, it will be important to identify the unique characteristics of each and to be sensitive to their needs, issues and concerns. Try to tailor information and materials to the various populations and make them available at places where underserved groups tend to seek information and services. For example, to include African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities in your program, you may need to disseminate information to churches and other agencies and organizations in the community serving these groups. Sometimes the format in which information and materials is made available will need to be made more accessible (i.e., braille materials for persons who are blind or visually impaired, electronic networks for persons who are deaf or hearing impaired, clear and simple language for persons with learning disabilities, etc.). Similarly, some states may find it useful to make information and materials available in Spanish or other languages as well.

Messages and information should be sensitive to the differences of ethnic and non-English speaking populations. Be aware that some underserved groups such as elderly individuals do not typically see themselves as being disabled and will find the use of certain terminology such as assistive technology intimidating. Therefore, from a public relations and awareness standpoint, rethink how you advertise your program and services.

Rural populations tend to be isolated and remote. Access to information and availability of services for this population will be quite limited. Special events such as county fairs and rural services such as county extension agencies are good vehicles for disseminating information. Other strategies may include a mobile van unit to serve areas that are not currently being served through traditional service agencies. By including representation from underserved groups in the planning of your state A.T. projects, you are sure to meet some of these needs.

What are states doing to include underserved groups?

A number of states have instituted effective strategies to serve underserved and unserved groups. Such strategies include mobile van units, transmission of information via interactive television, providing materials in different languages, working through and within existing organizations such as local churches, the local chapter of the NAACP, county extension agencies, and specific disability organizations.

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.

RESNA TA Project
1700 North Moore Street, Suite 1540
Arlington, VA 22209-1903
Phone: 703-524-6686 | Fax: 703-524-6630 | TTY: 703-524-6639