Hacking Into Your Best Life (For Free!)
By Noah Hoffenberg
Eagle sponsored content editor
PITTSFIELD — One in four of you reading this live with a disability.
Chances are, if it's not you, it's someone you know or care about. It might be a person with near-blindness, with cerebral palsy, a veteran or a worker injured on the job. It's not always an obvious disability, says Alex Dunn, director of marketing and communications for Easterseals Massachusetts.
“You hear that one in four people have a disability, and people think, 'How does that make sense?'” says Dunn. It's a hard statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, for many, it's an eye-opener. “People end up disabled through an accident or age. This could be you.”
Whether simple or complex, disabilities come with personal and societal limits, and can spur isolation and hardship; the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbates that. Picture a student with autism, who can't focus on her teacher's words during a Zoom meeting, or an elder person with diminished hearing, missing a knock on her door for a crucial meal delivery, says Dunn.
Help is available
It doesn't have to be this way, says Eric Oddleifson, vice president of assistive technology and community support services for Easterseals Massachusetts.
You're probably familiar with Easterseals, from a century's worth of work on the behalf of the disabled, to increase independence and inclusion for children and adults. But assistive technology? What's that?
It entirely depends on who needs the assist and the technology of the day, says Oddleifson. A prime example is the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who for years used successive generations of computer tech to speak after he lost his voice.
These days, says Oddleifson, it might mean supplying and teaching an elderly person who lives alone how to use an Amazon Alexa, to control lights at nighttime to reduce the risk of falling during trips to the bathroom. Or, for someone with a memory recall problem who still wants to cook, the assistive tech team might be able to add digital prompts in the kitchen to help with task completion.
Free? Yes, free
Best of all, perhaps, is that the lion's share of this technology is free to Western Massachusetts residents; Easterseals recently landed a five-year contract through the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission to deliver the state's Assistive Technology Independent Living Program to the region.
“This is for everyone, not just for someone with a severe disability. It's really a democratic offering. We have expertise in all kinds of disabilities, so the sky's the limit, based on what your goals are. We're just your partner in getting there,” says Dunn.
The goal is to help people with disabilities live more independently and safely in the community. Tech tools are available to help with online shopping, communicating with a doctor, easier access to a telephone, and/or access to a computer.
“If you apply for this service, this is the sort of thing you could have in your home. It's simple, but it's really important,” says Oddleifson.
Well-established in Western Mass.
Easterseals has been doing similar work in Western Massachusetts for years, having provided tech and training to people in need across the region through traditional and low-interest loans and other programs.
“We're going to be around, not a flash in the pan kind of thing. We're here to help with long term,” says Oddleifson.
In fact, he says, two of Easterseals’ assistive tech specialists live in Western Massachusetts, and will be assisting clients in-person and remotely in the Berkshires. They're ready to help with evaluation needs, purchasing equipment, set-up, delivery, training and tech support as needed.
In the past 15 years, Easterseals has assisted the region's residents — young and old and in between — with hundreds of pieces of technology, training and other “life hacks” to improve their daily lives, in their learning, work and play.
Hundreds of clients in the region
A quick Western Massachusetts tally: two dozens pieces of computer equipment, more than a dozen communications devices, almost 100 devices to improve hearing, a handful of environmental controls, nine home modifications, eight learning and cognition assistive devices, 46 devices to help with client mobility, nine to help with vision and nearly 100 vehicle modifications.
That's a lot of help and assistance, and there's more available, says Dunn. He says it's a wide spectrum of individuals who use the assistive tech, and he knows there are more people in the Berkshires who could use it, although they might not be aware of the program.
What separates Easterseals from other groups that can supply assistive tech is that the advocacy and action-oriented group is “not solely about the equipment or devices. In 2020, equipment and devices are ubiquitous, but you need to know how to use them,” says Dunn.
Teachers who know tech
Dunn says that 80 percent of assistive tech is abandoned by the user, because there was no teaching component to help the user to fully understand the device.
“You have to understand the context in which someone is using the tech. If you miss that piece, they won't use it,” adds Oddleifson.
For example, since their launch in 2010, iPads have been revolutionary for people who are nonverbal. “It really opened the doors to a piece of a technology that had been really cumbersome and hard to offer as assistive tech at scale.”
But, you can't just hand an iPad to someone and walk away, because the tech will sit idle, collecting dust, and the individual's life hasn't been changed for the better.
“That's what's made our client-centered model very successful. We're your active partner, but you're leading the charge, telling me what you need and want to do.”
Oddleifson says there's credentialing that Easterseals' assistive tech specialists undergo to help them be the most useful in not only identifying and installing equipment, but also making sure that the client is able to use the tech fully.
“You can get an Alexa if you want, but if you don't know how to use it, you'll abandon it,” says Dunn.
Adds Oddleifson: “It's people's lives, so we've got to be careful. We might be installing a system they use to get help. We make sure it works and that it's going to last.”
Easterseals techs are much more than techies or gearheads, says Oddleifson. They come with deep backgrounds in occupational therapy, education, and rehab technology, among others. Nobody on the team has come from a pure background of IT, he says.
Changing lives, one bit of tech at a time
Assistive technology changes lives, says Dunn. He cites the story of Cesar Rodriguez, a Worcester-area painter who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a disease marked by muscle weakness and atrophy that worsen with age. As Rodriguez gradually lost the use of his hands to paint and draw, he was told several times that to continue painting was impossible or too expensive.
Easterseals stepped in and was able to engineer for him a custom painting system using assistive technology for free, after other companies told him it would cost thousands.
“Cesar went from being told he can't paint, to doing art shows in Worcester,” says Dunn. “It's a great resource for local people. We can get into high tech and low tech. We can offer really simple solutions to improve someone's life for the better. Look at Cesar. His general goal was to have this basic accommodation, he was able to not only pursue his art, but compete in the workforce as a professional artist.”
Leading in life hacks for people with disabilities
Easterseals Massachusetts is helping to lead the charge nationwide with its assistive technology, as one of about seven Easterseals chapters across the U.S. to deploy the program.
Easterseals' tech expertise has been tapped repeatedly by industry giant Microsoft, who invited the group to its 2020 Hackathon, an annual worldwide event that pairs Microsoft employees and mission-driven nonprofit groups to make a positive difference in the world through new technology.
“Microsoft trusts us in this space and where we're going, and because we have a really strong history in Massachusetts. Easterseals is a pioneer in showing that assistive tech is crucial not just for successful employment and accommodations, but really helps unlock an individual's potential to live a full life," says Dunn.
Find out more
If you're interested in learning more or signing up for the Easterseals’ assistive tech program in Western Massachusetts, visit bit.ly/MAESAT; to read the full program requirements, visit bit.ly/MAESeligibility; and for general assistive technology information, visit bit.ly/MAESAThomepage.
You can also email staff directly: Director of Assistive Technology Leo Tonevski at email@example.com, or Kristi Peak-Oliveira, assistant director of assistive technology, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interested people can also call 800-244-2756, ext. 431; leave a message for Tonevski and Peak-Oliveira.
For those who have needs outside the scope of the program, Easterseals has a traditional loan program with Berkshire Bank, as well as a microloan program up to $2,000 per household. The nonprofit agency also works with the state Rehabilitation Commission's clients who are moving from long-term care settings back into the community, and in school districts in these counties.
To read more success stories like Cesar's, visit bit.ly/MAESsuccess, visit eastersealsma.org