Technology has become an integral part of most people’s lives. Smart phones and other devices have evolved from luxuries to necessities and have a significant impact on our daily activities, giving us access to information, reminding us of what we need to do, and connecting us to other people. As much of the population has come to rely on handheld tech, individuals with I/DD have largely been left behind.
A number of barriers may prevent those with I/DD from accessing the kind of technology most of us take for granted. The biggest is funding, with many organizations left to navigate a complex web of funding sources. Another is staff training and the time commitment that comes with it. There is also the question of tech support – who will implement the technology and assist with any problems that may arise?
Because assistive technology can have a significant impact on the health, well-being, and quality of life of the I/DD population, as well as on organizations that serve these individuals, it’s critical to embrace opportunities to advance access.
Assistive Technology: Life-changing Impacts for I/DD Populations
Assistive technology is defined under the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (the “Tech Act,” 1988) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” The important part of this definition is that the device or equipment doesn’t have to be specifically designed to help people with disabilities, including I/DD. It’s defined in terms of the user, meaning that mainstream technology can be customized or used in a way that assists a person with a disability, it’s considered assistive tech. Benefits of using mainstream technology for assistive purposes include lower costs and more availability. There are two main types of assistive technology that can be especially helpful for individuals with I/DD: remote support and smart devices.
Remote support refers to technology that facilitates two-way communication between individuals. For example, a video appointment with a doctor that eliminates the need for an in-person office visit. This can be especially helpful for preventing the need to visit the ER for prescription refills or other non-emergency situations.
By using remote support technology, individuals who thrive on routine can avoid an unexpected trip outside the facility that might cause them stress and discomfort. Another advantage of remote medical visits is that they help keep individuals with I/DD, who often have multiple chronic conditions, safe from exposure to viruses and other infectious diseases. The adoption of remote support technology was accelerated during the pandemic for this reason.
Smart phones and other devices have myriad functions, but the one that may be most useful to individuals with I/DD is the ability to set reminders and alerts. This feature can help individuals manage their daily activities more independently while ensuring that important tasks aren’t missed.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health evaluated the use of phone-based reminders to help individuals complete basic tasks of daily life. In the study, participants were given smart phones set up with reminders to complete tasks like brushing their teeth or preparing for bed. Prior to receiving the smart phones, participants completed an average of 20% of the tasks correctly; with the phones, participants completed 90% of the tasks completely.
Benefits for Staff
Staff can also benefit from putting technology into the hands of individuals with I/DD. This is especially true for direct support professionals (DSPs), whose primary role is to help their clients live as independently as possible. DSPs are critical to the successful implementation of technology, which can make their jobs easier and allow them more time to focus on care. Ultimately, technology can enhance the care they provide and elevate their role.
How to Drive Access and Adoption
Acquiring and implementing technology successfully will require some initial assessment and planning. Here are some tips to get started:
• Assess residents’ needs
Before bringing technology into the facility, it’s important to understand residents’ needs and how technology can help meet them. It’s also critical to understand what kind of solution a good match for each individual will be, based on their unique needs and abilities.
• Involve DSPs from the beginning
Make sure DSPs are involved in the implementation process and draw on their knowledge of technology. Because DSPs are day-to-day caretakers, they are critical in ensuring that the technology is used and that clients benefit from it.
• Start with existing technology
Assistive technology doesn’t have to be specifically designed for the I/DD population. Start by assessing technology that’s already in use within the facility – like smart devices and computer stations – to see what can be used to build the foundation of a technology program. This can also help keep costs down.