Assistive Technology — 20 Years of the ATA

Circa 2007

“The tools of technology are fabulously flexible. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. The challenge is to use our powers of creativity to maximize the potential of the tools now and in the years ahead, as our needs change and as technology transforms the ways in which we connect with our environment and the people in it.” — Jackie Brand

The Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) is a national network of community-based resource centers, developers, vendors, and associates dedicated to providing information and support services to children and adults with disabilities. ATA helps to increase their use of standard, assistive and information technologies. The organization began when the availability of personal computers ignited a consumer technology revolution. Nationwide, parents of children with disabilities began to be curious about how technology might assist their children.

Shoshana Brand was one of those children. Her visual impairment meant she couldn’t read books or see the print on the blackboard. She didn’t have the fine motor capacity to write. The story goes that the inventor of one of the first expanded keyboards, a Unicorn, handed one to Shoshana’s dad saying, “Let me know if you get it to work.”

To see if Shoshana had the concept of cause and effect, they programmed her computer with four pictures: a cat, a dog, a pig and a cow. She could touch a dog, for instance, and get a barking sound back that let her know what she had touched. The number of options could be increased and changed as she learned. At one point she had words on blocks of the keyboard allowing her to create sentences. Her first letter was to her grandmother, asking her to quit smoking. Shoshana sent her 50 copies.

None of this would have happened if Steve and Jackie Brand were not aggressive networkers, bringing together other parents, therapists, inventors, developers, adults with disabilities, along with educators. Experience with the earliest computer-based assistive-technology movement meant that they were the experts even though they only knew a little. In 1983, Jackie wanted to learn more and to share this knowledge more widely. She organized a series of meetings that led to the creation of the Disabled Children’s Computer Group (DCCG), which grew up to become the Center for Accessible Technology, serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Parents from around the country began to contact Jackie, who had set up shop in a classroom donated by the Richmond School District. She was carting her daughter’s Apple II+ down to the classroom every day to share information and start-up software with other parents and teachers.

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When Apple opened its office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services and hired Alan Brightman, founder of its Worldwide Disability Solutions Group, the dye was cast. Brightman had heard about DCCG, dropped in on some of their open-house events, and then brought Apple into a nonprofit corporate partnership that would result in a national movement and millions of people benefitting from technology.

In 1986, Jackie went on the road for a year, speaking to groups and individuals, looking for a core set of members to start the Alliance for Technology Access. Creating networks and group linkages in the pre-World Wide Web days was done through email and telephone. The Alliance was one of the very first groups in the world to have a listserv for the express purpose of creating a virtual community to share experiences and expertise.

Jackie served as executive director of the ATA until 1996. She has received numerous honors for her pioneering work in the field of assistive technology advocacy. She is a popular spokesperson on the power of technology and is well-known by people with disabilities through her appearances at conferences, in videotapes for Apple and IBM, and in the groundbreaking PBS documentary, Freedom Machines.

For daughter, Shoshana, having a tool that replaced her pencil allowed her to participate in her public school education, while having access to voice synthesis where she could listen, as well as tap a world of resources.

Like so many other young students with disabilities in the early to mid-1980’s, Shoshana was among the first students to bring a computer into the classroom. This allowed her to demonstrate her capacity to learn and, because computers weren’t prevalent or easy for everyone, made her a star in her mainstream classroom. Though the tools were basic—a large-print talking word processor known as Key Talk, an Echo speech synthesizer and a Unicorn board—they were extraordinary for the time.

Through her school years, Shoshana and her parents benefited greatly from using technology. Educational software was a patient and non-judgmental teacher allowing her lots of practice. A spell-checker, an online dictionary, the ability to edit, outline and keep records all came in handy, as Shoshana completed her education at a local community college.

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When Shoshana turned 22 and was ready to move on with the next phase of her life, there weren’t many options. Transition planning for young adults with disabilities was in a nascent state. So, again, the family was forced by necessity to create a program that would allow her to live in the community with appropriate supports.

Today, Shoshana is in her 30’s and uses a sophisticated computer system with a screen-reading program (JAWS by Freedom Scientific) and a highly adaptable keyboard (IntelliKeys by IntelliTools). She uses her laptop in many of the same ways that everyone else does: to look up information, keep a budget, make phone calls and communicate with friends, family and associates. She also uses the Internet to run a small business: Blue Rose Videos With a Voice. It’s a unique video-rental service designed for people with visual impairments, and currently stocks 200 commercial video titles with narratives that describe what other people can see on the screen, such as costumes, facial expressions and actions.

By 1998, some of the most effective computer-based strategies had been developed, including computers that could speak text aloud, adapted keyboards and ‘mice,’ single-switch access and even voice input. Since then, the software has become more powerful and less expensive, and some of the hardware has been replaced by software.

When the ATA started, much of assistive technology was an add-on from a third-party vendor. Today, a great deal of standard technology has built-in assistive features or is designed to work more easily with specialized assistive technology, such as a screen reader for the blind.

Shoshana’s current keyboard evolved from her original Unicorn keyboard, but it no longer requires an interface card to work. It is also a great deal easier to program and set up for someone with a visual, cognitive or physical disability.

Today, in addition to 40 assistive-technology centers across the county, ATA has developed a close partnership with CTCNet to provide training and resources for their network of over 1000 community-technology centers to better serve the more than 20 percent of their community that has some form of disability.

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With a major grant from the AT&T Foundation, the two organizations developed a program called Connections for All, which provides training and a self-assessment tool for community-based tech centers to help them better serve people with disabilities. The program also provides funding to organizations nationwide to purchase assistive and accessible technology.

The ATA will celebrate 20 years of heroes, leaders and partnerships that have moved assistive technology forward on March 14, 2008, in conjunction with the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in Los Angeles.

Much has changed over the last two decades—the passage of the landmark civil rights bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the creation of the World Wide Web.

What hasn’t changed is that information about computer-based assistive technology isn’t as readily accessible as you might think. With more sources of information, the challenge is how to find the right information for individuals and families. For the most part, teachers, doctors, senior centers, local community technology centers, adult education classes and occupational therapists do not know about these tools, nor feel comfortable in guiding consumers to them.

Federal legislation should help change this. The Assistive Technology Act provides funds to each state to provide AT information and services to those who need them. In California, the department of rehabilitation contracts with the ATA to coordinate the AT Network that provides information, training and technical assistance. The department also contracts with Cal State Northridge’s Center on Disabilities to operate the California Assistive Technology Exchange, funding equipment loan centers throughout the state. Most states have been experimenting with systems to offer such loans.

The job of the ATA will not be done until assistive technology is readily available in schools, homes, and community settings, so that people with disabilities can use technology in any way they need it.

by Lisa Wahl

Alliance for Technology Access

California AT Network

Freedom Machines at

Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs

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