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Breaking Ground 94 - Where Enabling Technology Meets Employment

On a typical Monday morning, a young woman - let’s call her Christine - packs her lunch, grabs her cell phone and keys, and locks the front door. She leaves home and begins the seven-block walk to the bus stop. Along the way, Christine checks a GPS-enabled app on her phone to make sure she is heading in the right direction. She arrives at the bus stop and checks the time on her phone - still plenty of time to get to work before her shift starts. A bus appears on the horizon and Christine reads the number on the front: 55. She reopens the phone app to double-check her bus number: 33. Not this one. Bus 55 slows to a stop, lets off a few passengers, and continues on its way. After another few minutes, bus 33 stops and opens its doors. Christine climbs aboard, scans her bus pass, finds an open seat, and settles in for the 20-minute ride to work.

Every few minutes, Christine checks her phone app to make sure she doesn’t accidentally get off at the wrong stop. She knows the app will alert her when it’s time to exit the bus. As her bus stop nears, Christine’s app sends her a notification, reminding her to pull the cord to alert the driver. She hops off the bus, double checks her app to make sure she is at the right place, then turns left to walk another three minutes and finish the last leg of her commute.

As Christine walks through the front door and heads to the breakroom to clock in, her app sends another notification that she has arrived at work and gives her the option of viewing her job checklist and a series of photos and video clips. The app is customized specifically for Christine and her job; she can view a photo checklist of the tasks she needs to complete for the day. When she clicks on each photo, she has the option of reading a description of the task or watching a short video clip of herself actually performing the task. Later, after she completes each task, Christine uses her phone app to mark each of them “complete” and remind herself of what comes next. The app also sends her notifications at the start and end times of her breaks. Since Christine has been at her job about a year now, she doesn’t always need all of the functions the app offers, but she appreciates having the extra support.

It’s time to get started, so first Christine heads to her cubicle, turns on the computer, logs in and checks her email. Then, she looks for any written messages her manager may have left on her desk. After that, Christine thumbs through the invoices stacked in her “in” basket and heads over to the scanner to start uploading them to her cloud for processing. When it’s time for her break, she chats a bit with coworkers, checks the time again, checks in with her manager, and gets back to work. Six hours fly by and Christine is done for the day. She makes sure all of her duties have been marked “complete” in her app, says goodbye to those still in the office, and heads to the door to begin the journey back home.

This is just one ordinary day in the life of Christine, who has an intellectual disability and has a job in the community. But what is extraordinary is that just last year she depended on a job coach to transport her to work, help her get set up at her work station, and keep her on track with her duties throughout the day. There was hardly a moment when Christine’s job coach was not within arm’s reach or somewhere else nearby. Now, Christine’s job coach only checks in with her once per week by phone, or whenever Christine feels she needs a bit of extra support. Looking back, Christine has experienced a pretty significant and empowering transformation from last year until now.

One of the main reasons for her increased independence and job satisfaction is the app she installed on her phone last year. Often referred to as “mobile enabling technology”, this app was exactly the tool Christine needed to feel more confident about taking public transportation to work and accomplishing her duties without needing a job coach physically by her side. There are several varieties of mobile enabling technology, most of which can be customized to meet the needs of the user. Some are equipped with GPS capabilities and some use video modeling to help users learn and practice their job duties. Some even allow a user to share their content with other people, including family members or a job coach. Despite variations between different apps and software platforms, all mobile enabling technologies have the same goal: to empower people to be more independent at work and in the community.

Last year, the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) launched the Enabling Technology initiative, with the goal of helping people achieve higher levels of independence and a greater quality of life. Through the Enabling Technology initiative, selected DIDD providers are given funds to invest in various forms of technology for the people they support, for use both at home and in the community. Technologies range from stove sensors and doorbell cameras at home, to GPS-enabled and video-based smartphone apps at work. The sky is the limit and each person chooses technologies that support his or her own needs and interests. It is a totally customized and person-centered process.

Mobile enabling technologies are an especially critical tool for DIDD to achieve its goal of doubling its competitive integrated employment (CIE) rate by 2022. There are many folks supported by DIDD who are not currently working, and also many who are already employed, who could take advantage of mobile enabling technologies to increase their independence, productivity and quality of life.

Technology is truly everywhere in 2018; having a disability should not exclude someone from reaping its full benefits. Just like Christine, people across Tennessee are beginning to experience the power of technology at work. DIDD is hoping many more will have the same opportunity in the years to come.

For more information about how DIDD is using mobile technologies to help people become more independent at work and in the community, please contact Jeremy Norden-Paul, state director of employment and day services, at jeremy.norden-paul@tn.gov.