News Creating Equity with Assistive Technology

Creating Equity with Assistive Technology
  • Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
inside a vehicle with assistive technology modifications

At Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC), we focus on breaking down barriers and empowering individuals with disabilities to live life on their own terms. No two people are the same, and we make sure their specific needs are met to fulfill their journey. While some individuals may need our assistance for continued education or job training, others need tools to help them live and work independently. That's when our vocational rehabilitation and community living staff reach out to those who work with assistive technology.

Assistive technology (AT) is precisely what the name implies. Technology that assists those in creating an equitable work and living space. Kobena Bonney, the Assistive Technology Program Coordinator at MRC, likes to simplify it even more. "I talk about the word 'technology.' Some people don't see themselves as having a disability, so you have to break it down to a person who is using technology." Technology doesn't cater to a disability; everyone uses technology as a tool for their job, whether driving to work, solving math problems, or writing a report.

Technology is the great equalizer. While our job seekers may need different technological access, AT offers them tools they can use to take part in educational opportunities or acquire job skills. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselors can help to recommend an evaluation to find technology that works for them. While those who work with independent living consumers, working is not necessarily the goal but helping them live on their own. Individuals who feel they need help with technology can call a provider, and a provider initiates a process to figure out their needs.

When hearing the term "assistive technology," people's thoughts may go to physical tools available to individuals with disabilities. Kobena points out that the most significant change in the field is the computer. "Computers, when they come out of the box, aren't necessarily considered 'assistive technology.' But the moment you turn on the accessible software features, they suddenly are." Computers, especially in the last 20 years, have become more affordable and more compact, allowing them to be not only financially accessible but also are more portable. Since March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, MRC has provided 12,000 pieces of technology equipment, including laptops, monitors, keyboards, and headsets.

For a person who is blind, a computer can help them navigate a website, read a document to them, help them compose correspondence, create presentations, and serve as a voice recorder. Those who are deaf or heard of hearing can use a computer to convert spoken words to text for meetings and videos. For individuals who are non-verbal, a computer or tablet program can help them find the words to talk and laugh.

In many cases, the tools a person with disabilities can be expanded on depending on what technology they need. Someone who can't walk may have to use a wheelchair, but what if they can't use their arms or hands to move it? Assistive technology can help a person drive their chair by tilting their head, chin, or even with their breath. Chairs can be lifted or heated for poor circulation, and cars can be adapted to accept a wheelchair as the driver's seat.

The vehicle and home modification programs we provide are also part of the assistive technology program. Program Director Eugene Blumkin has seen firsthand that they can change lives. "My father was a disabled WWII veteran in Russia, and we used a car with adaptive features." Growing up with a parent using an adaptive vehicle helped Eugene understand the profound impact adaptive technology had on his father's independence.

The vehicle and home modification process is similar to the process of securing smaller and more portable technologies. First, there is an evaluation process. For vehicle modifications, an independent evaluator will meet with the individual, assess their specific needs, and review the type of vehicle and technologies required. Home modifications need a site visit with an architect or designer who tours the house with the individual and evaluates what adjustments that person needs. While different expertise is required for all types of assistive technology and modifications, the one thing that remains the same is that every situation is different.

"That's the most exciting part about doing assistive technology. It's never the same. When you get reports and recommendations, the hardware and software for every project are completely different. And every consumer is going to require different levels of training. And it's great to see that immediate satisfaction in their eyes when the project is finished," Eugene said. 

Kobena says that when he talks to those who need assistive technology, they are surprised at how financially accessible they are. "They are surprised that it's not expensive. They think making accommodations for them it's going to be expensive. They fear employers may not hire someone because it will cost too much money. But many times, the technology is basic and easily available. They learn that there are many options for them to use, and it's not just one technology."

The assistive technology field is so broad, and as everyone knows, MRC is not a one-size-fits-all agency. We work with our community to ensure their needs are met to live independently. If you have an individual who feels they need assistive technology to thrive, have them meet with an evaluator to help them find the tools that work best for their purposes. Our assistive technology team has decades of experience researching and providing resources for those who need them. Their work is critical to the agency's mission of creating a truly equitable, accessible, and inclusive Commonwealth. Eugene wants to remind MRC Staff, "We do not expect them to be an expert in any assistive technology, and don't be afraid to contact us and ask questions."

Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission 

The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) helps individuals with disabilities to live and work independently. MRC is responsible for Vocational Rehabilitation, Community Living, and Disability Determination for federal benefit programs.