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New Technology Helps NJ’s Developmentally Disabled Gain Independence

State agency, advocacy groups pair people with disabilities with devices that can help them live on their own, go to school, work

disabled kid

Efforts to help individuals with a disability live independently date back nearly a century in this country, but technological innovations in the past decade have greatly expanded opportunities for people to live, learn, and work on their own terms.

In New Jersey, the state works with a network of nonprofit agencies to connect thousands of residents each year with programs, technologies, and other assistance that can help them do more on their own. These advocates are finding new allies in high-tech devices like tablets and smartphones, products that continue to become more affordable and approachable as they evolve.

Assisted or adaptive technology is a broad category, experts note, that refers to anything that can help anyone do something better — including items like a phone, which benefits most people, regardless of ability. For individuals with physical disabilities, these technologies include basic structures like ramps and grab bars or specially designed products like wheelchairs and Braille-based keyboards and printers, which enable those who are blind to read and write.

Solutions for those with developmental disabilities have been somewhat more elusive. But new technology has led to products that can sense when a person is in bed or not, remind individuals to take their medicine, or synthesize a human voice to help those who can’t be easily understood on their own.

“We all use things outside of our own bodies to extend our abilities, to do things we couldn’t do otherwise,” explained Fred Tchang, the Director of Assistive Technology Services at Advancing Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps people with various disabilities find independence. “When we have limitations, we invent things — tools — to do things we can’t do otherwise.”

The booming high-tech industry has fueled many of these new developments, Tchang and others agreed. But just as important is how the general public has embraced these products, sparking an ongoing pursuit of other technological developments and a growing appreciation for the life-changing impact these can have.

Items once developed exclusively for disabled individuals — like voice-recognition software such as Dragon — have migrated into the general population, experts said. Plus, popular devices like iPads come loaded with a standard suite of assistive-technology elements like larger fonts and different screen contrasts. These trends drive down costs and increase awareness of these products, they said. Ironically, they added, while most traditional AT devices are covered by Medicaid or other insurance, it can be harder to get reimbursed for something like an iPad, which, while much cheaper than technologies developed specifically for disabled users, is not considered a medical device.

“I’d say the latest developments are really around the greater and greater use of everyday technologies,” Tchang said. “That’s part of the trend, the democratization of assistive technology.”

Efforts to better integrate individuals with disabilities into the workplace date back to 1920. In 1945 the United States officially recognized the importance of disabled workers, a predecessor to Disability Employment Awareness Month, celebrated in October. In the 1970s, protections were added to ensure disabled students could attend public schools and extend civil rights protections to those with a disability. Multiple laws in the following decades sought to strengthen these provisions and create new incentives to inclusion.

Steve Vernikoff, executive director of the Center for Family Support, which serves nearly 15,000 individuals with disabilities in New York and New Jersey, said demographic trends also underscore the need to support disabled residents on the job.

“With an aging population … and a workforce that’s not growing proportionally to meet our needs, technology is going to be more important in allowing integration,” he said.

Helping those with developmental disabilities, in particular, live in more independent settings has also become increasingly important in recent decades, as New Jersey and other states have shifted from a system based primarily on large residential institutions to one that instead promotes small community-based homes and support services.

In 1998 the state founded the Division of Disability Services, within the Department of Human Services, to help connect families and individuals with the services they need, whether it’s at home, in a classroom, or on the job. While a number of state offices play a role in supporting disabled residents, DDS is “the single point of entry and a source of information and referral for people with disabilities, wherever they may fit into the spectrum,” director Joseph Amoroso explained.

With multiple local, state, and federal agencies involved with disability rights and programs, and a potentially confusing array of nonprofit organizations working on the ground, families faced frustration getting accurate and timely information, Amoroso said. “My staff is trained to triage needs and know what technology is available and where it is,” he explained.

The division, which fields roughly 2,000 calls a month, does a full assessment of the individual’s needs. Based on their findings, DDS will refer callers to other state offices to help with medical care or social needs, or connect them with a nonprofit group like Advancing Opportunities that can work with them one-on-one to provide assistive technology. DDS operates a toll-free number, 1-888-285-3036, during regular business hours.

Tchang said groups like his then meet with the individual in their home, school, or workplace to assess the situation and work with them to design a custom solution. They can help people purchase the right technology, or provide them a device on loan from their library of pre-owned devices. Other organizations, like Goodwill, run similar programs.

These advocates will also coordinate with community support services, school officials, or human resources personnel to ensure the individual has the network of help needed to be successful. Several groups, including DDS and Advancing Opportunities, have also created videos that provide real-life examples of Garden State residents benefiting from these new technologies at home, in school and at work.

“Our goal is to be able to provide assistive technology to anyone, anywhere,” Tchang said.

Residents can also contact Advancing Opportunities directly through its website.

“The outcome is wonderful — you see the amount of freedom that someone gains,” Amoroso said.

The impact is particularly profound for individuals who may have lived for years in an institution or group home but now are able to transfer to a home of their own with the help of technology, Vernikoff, with CFS, added. Frequently, the key to independence is something as simple as a device to remind people when to take their medicine, he said.

With the addition of certain technology, “they feel better about their lives. It reduces the need for care by other people. And it’s cheaper,” he said. “And it reduces the stress on families.”

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