In 2007, Tasha Shoffner completed her MBA with the help of a DynaWrite speech generating device. After graduation she was in pursuit of full-time employment when she learned of an opportunity to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer at the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) Houston assistive technology (AT) demonstration center, a program of the Texas AT Act program. She couldn’t resist. Tasha had already been working part time as a consumer representative for Dynavox (a maker of alternative and augmentative communication devices) and had discovered the pleasure of helping others get empowered through assistive technology (and AAC in particular). Now here was an opportunity to light that fire for people with disabilities of all kinds; it was a chance to put her skills and life experience to work in a powerful and satisfying way, and learn about a lot of assistive technology in the process.
Shoffner’s own story with AAC did not begin until her junior year of college. She was contemplating switching majors to avoid the oral presentations necessary to complete her BA in social work when the Texas Rehabilitation Commission hooked her up with Dynavox software on a laptop. It changed her life. Shoffner, who has cerebral palsy, had discovered the power of AT. As she learned more, she settled on a DynaWrite—a keyboard-based device—because it allows her the greatest freedom of expression (Shoffner can type 20 words per minute with one hand). Finally speaking for herself, Shoffner completed her social work degree and later entered and completed the MBA program.
At UCP Houston, Shoffner has spent the last year and a half demonstrating all the AT equipment the center has to offer including JAWS screen reading software, Dragon Naturally Speaking (computer access for people with limited mobility), various alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) devices, as well as CCTVs and portable magnifiers for low vision.
“My favorite part of the job is watching the light go off in the client’s head when they realize what AT means to them,” Shoffner told ATPN in an email. “Every time a parent or teacher has come into the AT lab for the first time and realizes that there is help for their child or student, there has been an expression of relief and pure excitement of what the future may hold for them. That expression is all I need to know that I have had a positive impact on another person’s quality of life.”
Shoffner serves as an AmeriCorps Active Service Solutions for Economic Transitions (ASSET) Navigator, a program of UCP Texas. Congress expanded AmeriCorps funding in 2009, changes which include allowing volunteers to maintain their SSI benefits while earning their AmeriCorps monthly stipend. In addition, Shoffner will receive a Segal Americorps Education Award to put toward her student loans at the completion of the UCP assignment.
The Texas AT Act program (Texas TAP) funds an ASSET Navigator in each of six AT demonstration centers in the Texas TAP network. For Texas TAP, the AmeriCorps partnership was an easy fit; it began when UCP Texas, already a Texas TAP partner, became an AmeriCorps subgrantee through the Texas One Star Foundation (which administers AmeriCorps State). Texas TAP Program Director Roger Levy says Americorps provides the centers with inexpensive and highly competent personnel, and so far over 50% have been people with disabilities.
Shoffner would like to stay on at UCP Houston, but her second and final Americorps term ends in August, and she will again be looking for full-time work (contact Tasha Shoffner). ATPN asked Christine Ellery, Shoffner’s supervisor at UCP Houston, about the turnover that is inevitable with AmeriCorps. After all the training time, was it worth it to have Tasha for just two years? Ellery was succinct, “I think any time you get the chance to have someone like Tasha serve you take it.”
Know someone interested in becoming an Americorps volunteer? They can explore all the programs of Americorps at this interactive program selector for individuals.