Assistive & Supportive Technology Usage Grows During Pandemic

January 23, 2021
by Ohio DD Council Staff

The COVID-19 pandemic which began in 2020 brought to light the importance of technology as stay-at-home orders and quarantining forced people to learn how to use alternative ways to achieve their daily activities. Teleworking, virtual school, telehealth appointments, and video meetings with family and friends quickly became a part of daily life for all people. The pandemic also changed the way supports and services are delivered to people with developmental disabilities. Donna Meltzer, Chief Executive Officer of NACDD, in a letter to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, stated, “Many of these changes benefit Medicaid beneficiaries, result in less reliance on congregant settings, and offer insight into the new capabilities our service systems should plan and adjust for in a post pandemic world (including virtual workspaces, remote learning, internet connection and technology as critical service system infrastructure).” However, she also noted that with the increased use of technology, there is also the increased risk of people with disabilities experiencing social isolation, less community integration and even having their participant rights restricted.

Word cloud with list of words related to assistive technologyThe impact of the pandemic has increased the need for assistive technology more than ever. Assistive technology is no longer limited to the traditional devices and services that have long been recognized, such as screen reading software, adaptive equipment and switch-enabled devices. Assistive technology is now more accurately described as supportive technology. Supportive technology, in addition to offering traditional assistive technology, is the use of smart devices and the expansion of remote support services using existing and newly developed technologies. Supportive technology has broadened the scope of how to provide technology that assists people in their daily living activities.

The pandemic also brought to light that the digital divide still exists throughout the United States. According to the FCC, high-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement. But there are too many areas of this country where broadband is unavailable. The FCC states, “In urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. And on Tribal lands, barely 60% have access. All told, nearly 30 million Americans cannot reap the benefits of the digital age.” (https://www.fcc.gov/about-fcc/fcc-initiatives/bridging-digital-divide-all-americans)

The ACL emphasizes the importance of access to technology through its “Commit to Connect” initiative. The ACL states, “We need to ensure that devices people can use to connect with others can be used by everyone – accessibility should be factored into every element of design. We also need to make technology available to underserved and under-resourced communities and people who have low incomes. That means we need a national infrastructure to deliver digital solutions to these populations.” The Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council has signed up to be a part of this campaign. (https://acl.gov/CommitToConnect

The Pew Research Center reports that Americans with disabilities have lower rates of technology adoption. Nearly a quarter of Americans with a disability (23%) say they never go online, compared with just 8% of those without a disability. Adults with disabilities are also about 20% less likely than those without disabilities to say they subscribe to home broadband, or own a traditional computer, smartphone or tablet. The amount of time people spend online also varies by disability status. Only half of Americans with disabilities report using the internet on a daily basis, compared to almost eight-in-ten of the non-disabled (79%). (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/27/7-facts-about-americans-with-disabilities/

In addition, the use of telehealth may worsen the digital divide for people with disabilities. A paper published in JAMIA argues that design, implementation and policy considerations must be taken into account when developing virtual care technology. Telehealth technology design remains inaccessible for many. People with communication-related disabilities, for example, may not be able to use video-based services, and patient portals are not always compatible with assistive technology. (https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/telehealth-may-worsen-digital-divide-people-disabilities)

Council's Commitment to Assistive and Supportive Technology

For the past several years, the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council's (ODDC) work on assistive and supportive technology focused on assessing the knowledge base of the professionals who work with people with developmental disabilities, in particular the SSAs who work directly with clients of each of Ohio’s 88 county boards of developmental disabilities. After reviewing the findings of the assessments, the focus changed to educating SSAs to expand their knowledge about supportive technology. This resulted in building the capacity of the statewide county board system to better serve Ohioans with developmental disabilities who can benefit from the use of technology. ODDC continues to support work in this area and ODDC will shift its focus to educating and informing people with DD about the availability of supportive technology.

The ODDC has a staff person whose primary responsibility is to monitor technology projects and initiatives at the local, state and federal levels. The technology staff person also collaborates regularly with other technology stakeholders in Ohio. Through this work, the staff person recommends projects that ODDC can support in a collaborative fashion, as well as projects that ODDC can offer as competitive grants. The following are the primary organizations that ODDC collaborates with.

Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (DODD): In 2018, Ohio’s Governor signed an executive order establishing Ohio as a “Technology First” state. Shortly after, the Governor charged the Director of DODD to convene a Tech First Workgroup that met for six months and provided recommendations for next steps to ensure that all Ohioans with disabilities receive the technology they need to lead independent lives. ODDC was a member of that group and as a result, continues to work closely with DODD on their assistive technology and supportive technology projects. ODDC’s technology staff person meets monthly with leadership of DODD’s Community Life Engagement Team to discuss technology updates and issues. Past discussions have included changes to the state’s Assistive Technology rule to broaden the scope of covered assistive technology devices and services, creation of informational materials about technology for people with disabilities, participation on DODD grant review panels for technology-related grants, and more. Current discussions are focused on how to continue outreach to Ohioans with developmental disabilities to educate and inform about assistive and supportive technology, especially in light of the changes caused by the pandemic. DODD also plans to reconvene the Tech First Workgroup in 2021 in an effort to create the Tech First initiative into state statute and has already asked ODDC to be a part of that effort.

The Ohio State University Nisonger Center: Nisonger Center is one of Ohio’s UCEDDs. In 2018, Nisonger received a grant from DODD to promote remote supports in Ohio. ODDC was asked to be a part of the stakeholders group and advocated for the consideration of assistive technology within the construct of remote support. Nisonger and DODD agreed and the term “supportive technology” began to be used since it more accurately captured the need for both assistive and remote support technology. As part of the grant, Nisonger offered mini grants for innovative ideas to promote remote support services to county boards and regional councils on governments. ODDC participated on the grant application review panel and further supported this effort by providing Nisonger with more funding to award four more mini grants. Nearly 60 of Ohio’s 88 counties participated, with most creating remote support model homes featuring how assistive and supportive technology can lead to greater independence. In addition, Nisonger hosted a TechSummit for people with disabilities, their families, and others in 2019. The summit featured to speakers on innovative tech ideas and the opportunity for attendees to talk to experts and try out devices. The summit was well received and in 2020, ODDC provided funding to support a second TechSummit. Due to the pandemic’s large gathering restrictions, the TechSummit was postponed to August 2021. Council staff continue to work closely with Nisonger to support their technology initiatives. 

AT Ohio: Assistive Technology of Ohio (AT Ohio), affiliated with the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, is Ohio’s federal designated AT Program through the Assistive Technology Act. The Ohio DD Council works closely with the executive director and the policy director of AT Ohio to collaborate on issues and projects. AT Ohio’s policy director attends Council’s meetings and provides input and ideas that are helpful to Council’s members and committees. 

These are just a few of the organizations that ODDC is involved with. There are other technology projects throughout the state at regional and local levels that ODDC is involved with as well. The overall goal is for ODDC to stay informed about the technology needs of Ohioans with developmental disabilities while looking for ways to help support or fund projects that will further this goal. 

Outreach to the Technology Unserved and Underserved

When considering technology and its impact on people who are unserved or underserved, the digital divide continues to be an issue.

In Ohio, the availability of affordable broadband in rural areas and poverty areas has been and still is an issue. In these areas, the number of people with disabilities are disproportionately less likely to have broadband and hardware access and have a higher need of learning how to use new forms of technology. Currently, Ohio’s Lt. Governor heads up the Innovate Ohio initiative. One of its priorities is to strengthen Ohio’s broadband strategy through a partnership with public and private organizations. According to the Innovate Ohio website at https://innovateohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/innovate/priorities/resources/broadband/overview, “For more than 300,000 households, which is close to 1 million Ohioans, a major barrier they face is access to high-speed internet. In parts of Ohio, there are households that lack the basic connectivity necessary for children to do homework, look for a new job or access an online education or training programs.” ODDC’s public policy staff person and the technology staff person continue to follow the progress of this initiative. 

Another issue faced in Ohio when it comes to technology is with its Amish population. In Ohio there are nearly 76,000 Amish residents with the majority living in seven out of Ohio’s 88 counties. In addition, there are regions in Ohio where English is used as a second language or not spoken at all. As technology initiatives move forward throughout the state, consideration must be given to populations who do not or cannot embrace technology. Alternative ways to provide services and supports must still be considered.

Moving Forward

As ODDC moves forward with its commitment to ensuring people with developmental disabilities know about and have access to assistive and supportive technology, there are a several areas that ODDC will focus on.

Monitor and assess if social isolation becomes a problem due to reliance on technology. The focus moving forward should be to consider all types of technology in delivering services to people with disabilities, but to make sure that the use of technology does not create social isolation. 

Ensure that traditional assistive technology for those with complex needs continues to be available and supported throughout Ohio. 

Continue to support existing initiatives or offer grants to increase the capacity of assistive technology services in Ohio through education, training and information sharing.