Breaking Ground 107 - How to Use Technology for Connection and IndependenceBy Evan Espey, Technology and Access Coordinator, Empower Tennessee
It’s an obvious truth that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives. The restrictions from most in-person interactions have highlighted the importance of different ways of connecting with the world. That applies to employment, education, or social lives.
Thankfully, technology provides ways to be less isolated and live more independently. Even before the pandemic, many people with disabilities relied on assistive technology (AT) to gain and expand their independence so they can live, work, and participate in their communities.
New ways to think about assistive technology
AT can be anything from very high-tech – such as a special computerized device to help you communicate – to something as simple as a plastic hook on the end of a yardstick to grab items that are out of reach. AT can be purchased, or it can be a modified item you already own. The purpose is to make tasks, big and small, easier to manage.
Teaching and modeling safe, healthy, and smart ways to use technology to engage with the world and achieve your goals can be an important part of preparing children and young adults with disabilities for adulthood. Learning to use these tools can help young people get ready to live more independently.
Life in the 21st century is high-tech. Devices like smartphones, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant have become common to automate tasks, from turning on the living room lights to ordering groceries. Technology can also be used to set reminders for medical appointments, to take medication, or to remove something cooking in the oven.
Technology can be a great equalizer. It can be customized to meet different needs and abilities. The possibilities for using technology in creative ways for access and independence are practically endless.
The pandemic has also reminded us of the importance of internet access. You might connect through cellular hotspots, satellite subscriptions, or broadband access. An internet connection is essential for many of the ways we use technology to access the world. It’s how we interact on social media, search for our favorite recipes, and attend all those virtual events. As a society, we should start thinking about internet access as a basic utility, like electricity and water.
Once you have the right equipment and connection, you may need software or apps to improve your independence. Screen readers and voiceover features can be a game changer for people who are blind or have low vision. Captioning empowers the Deaf and people who are hard of hearing. And text-to-speech technology helps those who do not have the ability to speak to express themselves. Smartphones, tablets, and other “smart” devices keep improving the built-in accessibility features for users with all types of disabilities.
These are just a few ways in which technology can help people with disabilities to live a life of their own choice.
Getting Help with Technology Access
So, how do we make sure all people with disabilities have access to the technology they need? Tennessee is fortunate to have two important networks to help.
- The Tennessee Technology Access Program is a network of AT centers around the state. The centers are a program of the Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Vocational Rehabilitation Division. These centers can match you with the right technology and train and support you to use it. There are 5 centers that serve every county in Tennessee:
Find your local AT Center at https://www.tn.gov/humanservices/ds/ttap.html.
- Centers for Independent Living (CILs) are community-based centers focused on a person’s goals for independent living. Assistive technology may be one way to help you live independently. That might include learning new ways to use everyday, off-the-shelf technology you already have. A CIL may be able to provide the technology you need, or the CIL might refer you to one of the AT centers listed above. There are six CILs across the state:
Contact your local CIL to find out what’s available in your area: https://www.silctn.org/.
I serve as the Technology and Access Coordinator at Empower Tennessee, the Middle Tennessee CIL. We provide a broad range of assistive technology services like:
- Setting goals for living more independently
- Finding and navigating resources
- Getting financial help
- Loaning assistive technology or equipment to support independent living goals
We also offer a monthly Tech Talk Peer-to-Peer Group that currently meets virtually to discuss ways technology can make life easier.
In the face of our “new normal,” let’s make sure we all can stay connected to our family, friends, and community. It makes a positive difference to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Technology can be the key to unlock those opportunities.
Evan Espey joined Empower Tennessee as the Technology and Access Coordinator in 2020. In this role, Evan oversees the Assistive Technology (AT) program and resources to best help consumers reach their maximum independence through the use of AT. A recognized authority, advocate, and resource for Tennessee’s community of people with disabilities, Evan brings over a decade of public policy, outreach, fundraising, community relations, and AT experience to Empower Tennessee. Much of this experience was developed during the six years he served on the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, and from graduating from the Council’s Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute in 2015.