Technology Partnerships and Employment

Public Input Provided in 2012

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Written Testimony presented at a public hearing of the House Technology Committee

March 30, 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the House Committee on Technology regarding partnerships and employment. The Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) is established by federal law in the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and consists of a 27 member board, appointed by the Governor. It includes individuals with developmental disabilities, family members of individuals with developmental disabilities and representatives of key state agencies that provide services to people with significant disabilities. TCDD is dedicated to improving the lives of about 452,620 Texans with developmental disabilities by encouraging policy change so that people with disabilities have opportunities to be fully included in their communities and exercise control over their own lives.

“Developmental disabilities” are defined in federal law as a mental or physical disability that begins by age 21, is likely to continue indefinitely, results in substantial functional limitations in key life activity areas (such as mobility, communication, learning, employment, self-care, decision-making or living independently) and requires coordinated services and supports, in most situations throughout life. Individuals with a developmental disability include some individuals with an intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, severe and persistent mental illness, spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries, if that disability results in at least three substantial functional limitations and began before the individuals 22nd birthday.

TCDD provides grant funding to 35-45 projects each year that address a variety of topics including competitive employment, inclusive education, access to health care, and community supports among others. These projects include direct service demonstration projects that invest funds in local communities, test new ideas and help state agencies develop more effective ways to provide services. TCDD projects also provide technical assistance and training to individuals, service providers and agencies.

TCDD recently initiated projects that will demonstrate and publicize how technology might help more people with developmental disabilities to gain and maintain competitive employment and/or support students with developmental disabilities to participate more fully in the classroom. As part of this effort, TCDD will support organizations and businesses to explore how collaboration between technology companies and people who have developmental disabilities might further increase the level of creativity involved in the design and marketing of technology.

  • The Working with HEART technology project will create an interactive mobile application to promote competitive employment opportunities in inventory, requisitions, shipping and receiving (and similar jobs) for adults with developmental disabilities. The project is a collaboration between the HEART program that educates trains and employs adults with developmental disabilities and a technology firm, Blue Lance Group, which creates and designs customized applications and software.
  • Strategic Education Solutions will work with Social Motion Skills/Easter Seals Houston and Trinity Education Group to develop a virtual job coach application in the Houston/Harris county area. The web-based application will deliver 30 visually-rich instructional modules that address job search, applying for a job, and workforce skills processes and strategies. The web application is designed for adults with cognitive disabilities, however, the instructional materials and online access will also benefit adults with other developmental disabilities and people without disabilities. A moderated online community and mobile application will help users with specific questions and concerns about becoming employed and succeeding in the workplace.

Technology – both high-technology and low-technology – provides tools that can improve quality of life and productivity for everyone, including people with developmental disabilities. Some technological tools frequently used by people with developmental disabilities are specialized and disability-specific – these typically fall in the category of “assistive technology.” However, many of the tools that improve the quality of life for people with developmental disabilities are generic; they are the same products widely used by consumers with diverse characteristics who don’t necessarily have disabilities. Examples of this type of technology include: smart phones and related software applications; subtitles for language translation; voice-recognition software; global positioning systems (GPS) that might enable a person who has a cognitive disability to move around their neighborhood or city independently; talking books; computers; and social networking tools.

Although an obvious financial benefit exists to technology companies to ensure that new technology marketed to the general public also appeals to people with developmental disabilities, this group is not often considered a target market nor are their needs fully considered during the development of new products. Individuals with disabilities as a target audience will become increasingly relevant to businesses as the percentage and number of people who have disabilities increase (as is expected as baby boomers acquire disabilities as they age, and as veterans return home with injuries).

Technology companies striving to stay competitive may find it cost efficient to change their development processes so that products are originally designed and marketed so that they are desirable to people with significant disabilities as well as the general public.

Developers of new technology would likely benefit by consulting – early in the design process as well as during beta testing – with people who have developmental disabilities or who have family members who have developmental disabilities. A person who has lived a full life with a disability frequently becomes very creative at finding ways to meet their needs with whatever is available to them. Many have substantial expertise at “making things work” and know what is more or less likely to be helpful.

Additionally, designers may find that collaboration with people who have disabilities enables them to create technology that is more functional for and appeals to a wider range of people. For example, there are agencies that support people with developmental disabilities to live semi-independently by using commonly available monitoring and communication devices to enable their clients to do more in their own homes with less intrusion by direct support staff. This same type of technology might interest parents of typically-developing “latch-key kids” if they are aware of its existence. And the field of robotics holds great potential for helping people with significant disabilities live much more independently with fewer paid caregivers in their lives.

PROJECT HIRE

Like many TCDD grantees, Project HIRE chose to integrate technology to achieve its outcomes. While TCDD funds projects with the specific intent to include persons with disabilities during the development phase, we are finding that many of our grantees are employing and deploying technology in new and unexpected ways. For example, when one grantee learned that classroom style training for volunteer supported decision makers was not conducive to preparing them to the individualized nature of the work, they chose to deploy iPads and develop apps for training.

Project HIRE is an innovative program that will assist 50 persons with developmental disabilities in Hidalgo County who are between the ages of 18 and 25 to attend South Texas College (STC) and find jobs. TCDD has awarded the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) $225,000 for the first year of this five-year project. Each Project HIRE grant participant will receive intensive wrap-around services to help them achieve their education and employment goals.

We are excited that this project provides assistance to individuals with significant disabilities in The Rio Grande Valley, where Texans with developmental disabilities are often underserved. We appreciate your invitation to tell you more about this project and hope that its success will be an encouragement to others.