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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Assistive technology spells independence for the developmentally disabled

    The HomePal by MOVIA Robotics is shown at the Connecticut Assistance Technology Innovation Conference in Rocky Hill on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to the Day)
    Software by Tobii Dynavox is shown at the Connecticut Assistance Technology Innovation Conference in Rocky Hill on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to the Day)
    The NEAT Center at Oak Hill walks attendees through a demo smart home at the Connecticut Assistance Technology Innovation Conference in Rocky Hill on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to the Day)

    Rocky Hill ― A sellout audience convened at the Sheraton Hartford South Hotel here last month at the first Connecticut Assistive Technology Innovation Conference.

    Some 250 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, or IDDs, family members, providers, advocates, case managers and exhibitors gathered for what the keynote speaker called “a celebration” of technology’s undeniably essential role in enabling those with disabilities to live independently.

    Harold Sloves, former director of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, now working as a consultant, said Connecticut, in embracing the Technology First approach to helping those with disabilities, “has joined a club.” In 2020, it was among 22 states that had begun exploring the approach, launched technology-first initiatives or adopted related legislation.

    The approach, which began as a movement, has transformed into “a framework for systems change,” Sloves said, which means technology is considered first in any discussion of support options available to those with disabilities and their families.

    The growth of the approach accelerated during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, as conditions exacerbated the industry’s longstanding workforce crisis. In the aftermath, providers considered whether to focus on restoring the ranks of direct support professionals, or DSPs ― workers who help disabled people by ensuring the safety of their living environments and helping them with daily tasks ― or increasing their reliance on technology.

    Many believe the latter to be the better option.

    “The ability to use digital media safely and independently has become a necessity,” read a description of the conference’s “AT & Me” breakout session. “An increasing number of needs can be met only online, such as applying for a job, scheduling a COVID test, paying bills, and ordering an Uber or Lyft ride.”

    Several individuals with disabilities who work as self-advocates for the state Department of Developmental Services described the importance of technology in their lives. One, a woman who lives independently in her own condominium, said she travels to a fitness center, shops in different towns, gets manicures and massages, swims in the summer, skis in the winter and enjoys hot coffee at Starbucks.

    “Technology devices I use are my computer, tablet, iPhone and Samsung cell phone,” she said. “These devices help me communicate with family, friends, co-workers, and direct support professionals.”

    Another woman who works as a self-advocate in the New Haven office of the DDS said she has taught Sunday school in her church for 17 years. Ever striving for independence, she said her biggest accomplishment was earning a certificate in human services from Gateway Community College.

    Sloves focused his talk on the evolution of “enabling technology and remote supports,” which involves the use of technology to support a person with disabilities from a remote location, eliminating the need for the physical presence of a professional or family member. It requires technology that affords live, two-way communication.

    He described the case of an individual with disabilities who moved into his own quarters with the help of enabling technology that included sensors on his stove that could alert a DSP when he was near the stove or if he had left it on too long. A doorbell camera helped him identify visitors, and another sensor could trigger a DSP notification if he unexpectedly left the premises.

    Cooktops that boil water in seconds while remaining cool to the touch, and all manner of voice-activated appliances and gadgets also have been adapted for use by those with disabilities. Many of the latest innovations were on display at the conference, some included in a Smart Home on Wheels exhibit hosted by on The New England Assistive Technology Center at Oak Hill in Hartford.

    In the NEAT exhibit, Ramon Hernandez, an AT specialist, demonstrated a stove with the controls on the front where they were accessible to a wheelchair-bound person, and a “smart” microwave that could be operated by voice or remote control. A smart doorbell lit up when activated, a boon to the deaf, and an Alexa voice assistant offered verbal control of blinds, lights, a television and an air-conditioning unit.

    Another digital device measured blood pressure, weight and body mass index, and also provided a weather update, sending the information to a cellphone application. All of the items on display in the exhibit were sold at Home Depot and on Amazon, Kristen Gilfeather, another AT specialist, said.

    Programmable medication-dispensing systems that provide patient and caregiver alike with peace of mind, and “wearables,” or smart watch apps, that measure such physiological responses as heart rate, skin temperature and autonomic arousal can warn of an impending seizure.

    GrandCare Systems, a Wisconsin-based software company, exhibited a large touchscreen that pulls it all together, providing an individual with social communications, instructions, reminders and medical prompts. “Optional telehealth and activity sensors wirelessly report information and can send alerts if something is amiss,” the company’s literature said.

    A study by researchers at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, found the residents of a four-person “smart home” equipped with GrandCare touchscreens were able to complete more Activities of Daily Living and Instrumental Activities of Daily Living ― bathing, dressing, managing finances, shopping and preparing meals ― with less supervision.

    The residents’ greater independence led to greater feelings of self-worth and satisfaction.

    And, according to the study, the nonprofit that supported the endeavor was able to recoup the cost of all the smart home technology in less than a year.


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