In Colorado, the Department of Education funds a comprehensive short-term device loan program and partners with the state’s AT Act program at the University of Colorado Denver to run it. The program is a national model and distinguishes itself for providing access not only to device loans, but also to extensive professional development, technical assistance, and for marketing its services down to the level of the IEP team. In August, ATPN spoke with AT Partner’s Christina Perkins, MA CCC-SLP, and Sarah Barthel, MS, to learn about the Loan Bank: how it got started, how it operates, the case they are building for its cost-effectiveness, and what they have learned about getting the right equipment to school-aged students with disabilities statewide. The following was gleaned from that conversation.
The Loan Bank has grass roots origins. In the early 1980s a group of Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) organized to convince the Colorado Department of Education to fund a statewide program to enable better services for students who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Through word of mouth, the program soon attracted interest from therapists and educators working with students with all kinds of disabilities. Originally known as SWAAC, SWAAAC now includes an extra “A” for “Statewide Assistive Technology and Augmentative and Alternative Communication.”
In 1986 SWAAAC team members convinced the Colorado Dept. of Education to invest in the Loan Bank. A device loan bank, they argued, would help them identify the right equipment for students, and help them demonstrate to schools why providing comprehensive AT evaluations is cost-effective. It would allow for trial and error as therapists work to “feature-match” devices to a student’s specific abilities and ensure that a device works well in all environments.
Today the Loan Bank makes possible systematic device trials by SWAAAC team members in Colorado’s schools as well as Early Intervention specialists and participating Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation counselors. In 1998 The Dept. of Education contracted with AT Partners at the University of Colorado Denver to manage the SWAAAC program.
Loan Bank Overview
- Approximately 1800 devices are available for loan.
- Devices are provided for 6 week terms (including 2 weeks for shipping) with an option for one extension if there is no waiting list.
- 88% of devices are stored, maintained, and shipped from AT Partners in Denver.
- 12% are maintained in Grand Junction, one of AT Partners’ two regional satellites.
- The online loan bank inventory is available for browsing by anyone.
- The online “storefront” allows registered users to make loan requests (these include SWAAAC team coordinators, registered Early Intervention consultants, and registered Vocational Rehabilitation counselors).
- SWAAAC’s policies and procedures are reviewed and agreed to online with each loan request. This is known as the “Team Agreement.”
- Software licenses are also managed through this Team Agreement. Users agree to uninstall any software provided through the Loan Bank at the end of the loan term.
A Cost-Effective Shipping Partnership
A unique component of the Loan Bank’s operation is the shipping partnership SWAAAC has created with the Colorado Library Consortium. SWAAAC pays into the Consortium to use their book courier service (i.e. interlibrary loan) to ship devices. The Consortium agreed to the partnership because of its mission to help students access education. In Colorado, public libraries, community colleges, and schools make use of this service.
- Cost: just a few hundred dollars per year for AT Partners.
- Statewide access: rural and mountain regions are accessible through the service. (Courier sites exist statewide including many public schools, local public libraries, and AT Partners’ satellite offices in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction.)
- Reliability: the courier provides three pickup days each week.
- Participating schools must pay into the service to become a courier site. (Those that do not, however, may use their local public library or an AT Partners’ satellite office for pickup and return.)
- Devices are shipped uninsured. (However, AT Partners reports that the overall cost savings far outweigh the risks, and so far they’ve had very few problems.)
- Large devices cannot be shipped with the courier. (It was originally intended for books.)
Technical Assistance and Professional Development
From its inception SWAAAC was conceived to provide professional development in addition to statewide access to assistive technology. Currently SWAAAC provides:
- “Just-in-time” technical assistance over the phone or online to problem-solve specific classroom/student or device situations.
- A one hour monthly phone conference for school-based service providers. Topics often include reviews of professional journal articles to support evidence based practice, hot topics in the field for example “apps,” and/or guest speakers.
- A two-day introductory (SWAAAC 101) training. The training is provided annually for new AT professionals and makes use of the University of Colorado Denver’s video conferencing system for distance learning.
- A two-day advanced training (SWAAAC 202) on specific focus such as AT to support literacy learning, AAC, and AT to support physical access.
- A two-day summer symposium on how to provide effective AT assessments with theme based content. This year’s symposium will look at the implementation of AT across the curriculum.
Funding and Staffing
- The Colorado Dept. of Education funds 3 full-time employees to run the program (two full-time and two part-time staff including one student employee). It also funds the purchase and repair/replacement of equipment.
- Partners at the University of Colorado Denver provides facility space for storing the Loan Bank inventory as well as staff engineers for occasional device maintenance and repair.
Outreach to Build Local Capacity
SWAAAC’s goal is to build local capacity for AT expertise. To do so, it markets its services directly to classroom educators and therapists and not just regional special education coordinators. At the start of each year an AT Partners’ student employee spends 2-3 days researching and assembling an email list of all the therapists and special education providers on the rosters at individual school and school district websites statewide.
“There’s a lot of staff turnover and it takes time, but it’s worth it,” emphasizes SWAAAC Program Coordinator Chris Perkins. “Our approach has always been to build local capacity so that the knowledge and the expertise exists at the level of IEP teams.”
AT Partners uses the list to send announcements of trainings, learning labs, conference calls, and loan bank services.
AT Act reporting data is collected online. Registered users answer a questionnaire when they request a device loan and the information is aggregated. Outcomes data is collected through a short “check-in survey.” The response rate for this survey is lower than AT Partners would like (33% in 2009), and the program is working on policies to improve cooperation. At present, borrowers are emailed a link to the “check-in survey” once a device is returned.
The Case for Cost Savings to School Districts
- Between 7/1/2009 and 6/29/2010 1,504 device loans were made to 70 different school districts or BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services).
- 74% of borrowers reported the device loans assisted them with deciding whether to purchase the device.
- 34% concluded that they should not make the purchase.
- AT Partners estimates this 34% represents a cost savings to school districts of $169,786 (the total value of the rejected devices trialed).
- The importance of marketing SWAAAC services to build capacity on the local IEP team level. When classroom teachers, therapists, and parents are aware and make use of SWAAAC services, students with disabilities receive the most benefits.
- The Loan bank is most effective when its services are used in combination with a comprehensive AT evaluation. Students with disabilities need to trial devices that are “feature-matched” to their capabilities and needs, and to do so in a variety of environments.
- Ongoing professional development and technical assistance is necessary to help maximize the usefulness of Loan Bank trials.
- Bi-yearly, in-person, meetings with district team coordinators help build community, communicate policies, and share ideas for device purchases for the Loan Bank.
Thanks Chris and Sarah for all of your insights!