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Breaking Ground 92 - Enabling Technology: Modernizing supports for people with disabilities

by Cara Kumari, Director of Communications, TN Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

The Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) prides itself on blazing new trails when it comes to providing supports for people with disabilities, whether it’s being the first state to receive Person-Centered Excellence Accreditation from the national Council on Quality and Leadership, becoming a national leader in Employment First, or closing its large, congregate developmental centers in favor of individualized supports in the community. These have been monumental changes in the way the state provides supports for people with disabilities, and they are leading to better outcomes and a higher quality of life. Now, it’s time to take the next step in that journey.

Many of us have already embraced technology, wholeheartedly, in our everyday lives. Many people with disabilities check Facebook on their phones like the rest of us, and enjoy using tablets for news, information, games, videos and taking pictures. However, even though technology is all around us, we have relied on the traditional methods of providing supports to people with disabilities: 24/7 in-person supports. And while that level of support is absolutely essential for some people receiving DIDD services, there are countless others that can be and want to be more independent. That’s where enabling technology comes in.

The term “enabling technology” encompasses many different methods of providing support to people with disabilities in a way that fosters independence. It can be a mobile application that provides step-by-step alerts to a person who wants to use public transportation, to make sure they get to where they want to go. It can be a tablet loaded with individualized prompts to ensure they remember all of their scheduled tasks or appointments while working in the community. It can be a sensor on a bed, stove or door to allow a person to live independently, but alert a “tele-caregiver” if something deviates from the normal routine. All of these scenarios are already playing out in other service-delivery systems in some other states, with very promising results.

This “Technology First” movement is beginning in Tennessee. DIDD has carefully researched the options, the outcomes, the successes and the lessons learned from other states for the past year. Four DIDD providers were selected to begin testing enabling technology in April. Those providers are in the process of talking to the people they support and their families to see if the various enabling technology options may help them achieve their life goals. 

As we are having these conversations, we want to emphasize what this move towards technology is, and what it is not. A word we haven’t been using when talking tech is the word “monitor”. Oftentimes people hear “cameras” and think that a person’s every move will be watched or that this is a way to spy on staff. That is not the case. Cameras are one option in the myriad of technology options available to people and their families, and the purpose is to provide assistance only when it is needed, nothing more, nothing less. And it’s also important to stress that this is a choice - no one is being forced to use enabling technology if they don’t want to.  While we believe there are hundreds of people in DIDD services who can benefit from this, we also understand there are still hundreds of others who do not want remote supports or aren’t ready to be supported without in-person support staff. 

Each person who chooses to test enabling technology will be selecting the type of technology they believe will help them live the lives they envision for themselves.  The beauty of this type of support is that it isn’t “one size fits all”, nor is it limited to one type of technology. A person-centered assessment will be the first step in determining what options may lead to a person’s desired outcomes.  A detailed and comprehensive technology support plan will be developed and included in a person’s individualized support plan.

We will be evaluating throughout the process whether the person is satisfied with the technology supports they chose, if the outcomes identified by the person are being met by the use of remote supports, and if necessary, what needs to be modified or added to achieve those goals. DIDD has regional tech staff designated to interface with both providers and families to answer questions and address any concerns that might arise. A Technology Advisory Council, which includes representation from the Council on Developmental Disabilities, has been meeting to ensure all stakeholder voices and views are considered as we gear up to start the test project.

This is an exciting time for people supported by DIDD. We are now at the point where we can modernize the way we provide high-quality, person-centered supports. We believe enabling technology is a key component to allowing people to achieve their employment and community living goals, and are excited to start this program and find ways to blaze new trails in offering progressive supports with technology.