The problem: how to reach employers--not just individual end users--with awareness of assistive technology. CT's NEAT Center finds a unique solution...
It started with AT for Employment toolkits back in 2008. These are rolling travel bags stuffed with high- and low-tech devices for accommodating individuals with disabilities at work. That year, the New England Assistive Technology (NEAT) Center at Oak Hill created 5 such toolkits to provide outreach to regional employers. The toolkits were designed to target different needs: vision, mobility, communication, computer access, and ergonomics, and they were deployed through a partnership with the Connecticut Business Leadership Network and marketed through the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. NEAT staff rolled the bags to conventions and conferences, used them for presentations, and generally to educate business leaders on tools that can help retain and hire valuable and qualified employees who also happen to have disabilities.
Today the project has evolved in an interesting new direction. NEAT is a program of Oak Hill, a private disability-services organization (and CT Tech Act Program community partner) with over 100 years of experience working with individuals with disabilities. Bruce Stovall, NEAT's executive director, originally developed the toolkits with his staff through a Medicaid Infrastructure Grant and Connect-Ability, the state's multi-agency initiative to connect persons with disabilities to employers. Stovall drew on his past experience working as a job developer at Oak Hill, and used the toolkits to demystify issues with employers, helping to take away some of the intimidation he knew was there about how, exactly, it works to have someone on staff with a significant disability, and how they get their work done. Reception, he found, was enthusiastic and it helped that the toolkits were fun; Livescribe pens, screen readers, eventually iPods and iPads. Employers could try gadgets and ask questions. Using the toolkits in different venues inspired Stovall and Oak Hill staff to build on this success, and think about ways to further deepen the experience. They considered ways for employers and others to get comfortable understanding that anyone can have a disability.
The result of this thinking was a broadening of the toolkit concept in 2010. That year, Oak Hill staff created "A Day in the Life..." -- a hands-on tech-driven exhibit targeting employers and others without disabilities to experience what it's like to have specific impairments, and to try the tools that can make work, school, and daily living easier. "We use occluded glasses, hand immobilizers, that sort of thing [to simulate disabilities]," Stovall reports. "And, frankly, the businesses absolutely love it, and schools love it, particularly the colleges who are training special educators. Almost universally, everyone who goes through it says something like 'Oh my goodness, I never knew....' It's very memorable. There's the occasional skinned knee with a power chair, but it's very powerful!"
Along with the exhibit, staff integrate information on disability etiquette, i.e. how to be respectful and ask open-ended questions. Indeed, the equipment and the experience allow staff and participants to break the ice, walk in another's shoes (or ride in another's chair!), and have conversations some have never had before. "The human side is what it's really all about," Stovall notes.
Challenges the program has faced include keeping up with and funding technology. The original toolkits were assembled a year before Apple released the first iPod Touch (painful timing, indeed). Since the grant-funded period has concluded for the toolkits, the program has moved to a fee-for-service model (providing AT evaluations and problem-solving for individuals through VRS and schools, etc). "A Day in the Life...," however, has helped NEAT keep the program fresh and maintain an outreach component to employers and others. Stovall reports that "A Day in the Life" is something private foundations can easily understand. NEAT has been able to refresh equipment and support outreach through micro-grants from Ronald McDonald House, and the Hartford Foundation.
Oak Hill staff set up the "A Day in the Life..." exhibit at the NEAT Marketplace space in Hartford, but they also take it on the road, just as they continue to do with the toolkits--although "A Day in the Life..." doesn't usually fit in a suitcase.
"Staff want a NEAT bus next," Stovall confesses.
Visit the NEAT Web site
Contact Bruce Stovall