July 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 7

Service Organizations

Hands-On Access at Baruch College: A Model for Linking Technology and Service

Since 1978, the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP) at Baruch College has been in the business of empowering men, women, and young people with vision loss through the teaching of digital and access technology. From the teaching of FORTRAN and COBOL in its earliest days through the evolution from DOS to Windows and, now, to Apple products, the organization has striven to improve the lives of people with vision loss. In 2010, CCVIP began work on a model to formalize the relationship between technology and service by creating the Assistive Technology Demo Center.

Service Context

In New York state, adults who are legally blind are typically introduced to access technology in one of two ways: either they enroll for services with the State Agency Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (CBVH), or they have access to a store that specializes in access products. CBVH estimates that it provides services to approximately 15,000 individuals per year. By its own estimates, however, the number of legally blind people in the state is well over 100,000. The service gap is hardly unique to New York. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, seven percent of Americans report either being legally blind or having enough trouble seeing even when wearing glasses that it interferes with daily functioning. Although it's difficult to estimate the total number of people receiving services through the educational system, the rehabilitation system, and the Veterans Administration, it's safe to say that the blindness system in the United States does not serve 21,000,000 people in a given year.

A number of dealers show and sell access technology. However, their primary purpose is, typically, to sell products rather than to refer individuals to available services. Even though some mainstream products, such as Apple iOS devices, have accessibility features built in, the majority of personnel who sell these products are not well-versed in these features.

It appeared to CCVIP that there was a need to create a kind of hybrid center that could focus both on technology and service as a way to begin to bring more people to a place where they could receive an up-close and personal view of products and services that might be available to them. It needed to be a place where this could happen without the need for multiple layers of intake procedures to be completed before they could experience the possibility of help.

Demo Center Model

CCVIP is a program within the Division of Continuing and Professional Studies at Bernard M. Baruch College, the City University of New York. Its vision is to help anyone move from where they are to the next step with the support of accessible technology. Someone new to vision loss will clearly need far more than technology to restore him- or herself to a full life. Becoming part of the service delivery system takes time, and this is something that newly blinded or visually impaired people do not have.

The overall objectives for the Demo Center are the following:

  1. Invite people in.
    CCVIP has the advantage of being a community resource within a college setting. The organization suspects that it might sometimes be less threatening for new people to visit in its environment rather than to reach out to an agency for the blind. People come to the bimonthly workshop presentations or make individual appointments with the Demo Center Coordinator.
  2. Introduce them to simple solutions, either high or low tech.
    During the workshop presentations, various categories of accessible technology are demonstrated to groups, which run anywhere from 20 to 60 people each time. Presentations in the past have ranged from "Accessible Cell Phones" to "Accessible Products costing under $200." When the appointment is individual, the Coordinator conducts a task-based interview that explores the areas where the visitor is having trouble and then demonstrates one or more technology-based strategies or possible solutions.
  3. Invite them to consider getting services.
    CCVIP introduces possibilities for services. Following the demo(s), the Coordinator speaks with the individual about the types of services available from various organizations and offers to help with referrals. For example, the Coordinator has found that a number of people who have declining vision have not seen a low vision specialist.

Individual Initial Consultations

Of the 41 clients who entered the Demo Center through a one-on-one consultation in 2011, 36 came because of personal interest or need, and 5 came because of professional interest. Of the 36 who came for personal reasons, 19 were referred for basic services. They were either referred to CBVH (11) or for low vision evaluation (8).

Sixteen clients were new to vision loss, and 20 were not. Even among these 20 individuals, however, the consultations uncovered gaps in knowledge of and participation in basic services.

For example, one of the oldest clients served by the Demo Center, an 85-year-old woman, reported that she had never been referred for a low vision evaluation by her optometrist. A man who was facing a rapid decline in his vision had never been informed about the New Jersey Commission for the Blind (in his home state) even though he was in frequent contact with his optometrist and other medical professionals.

Of the 16 clients new to vision loss, 5 expressed interest in learning to use mainstream products, such as iPads and Kindles. One client requested ZoomText (a product specific to vision loss). The remaining 10 clients who were new to vision loss wanted tools for reading, communicating, and organizing information. The most requested functions were reading and communicating via a cell phone.

Although people often came in with one request, it was discovered that they had multiple needs for service. For example, when one client new to vision loss asked about the Kindle for reading, he received a demonstration for the Kindle but also for ZoomText. In addition, CCVIP gave referrals for the Commission for the Blind and a low vision exam. Many new clients requesting the same information also receive demonstrations for other technologies, such as Book Sense and Victor Reader Stream, as well as for various screen readers and magnifiers.

Workshop Presentations

During most of 2010, presentations focused on various classes of equipment, such as cell phones and scan-and-read systems. In the fall, the organization decided to include presentations that focused on particular aspects of service. To date, these have included "What One Learns from a Rehab Teacher," "What is a Low Vision Evaluation?," and, most recently, "Meet the Commission," a session where three representatives from CBVH gave an overview of what services are available through the agency and how to begin the process of accessing them. A total of 280 individuals attended these presentations during 2011.

The product demonstrations include a vast variety of household, office, and entertainment devices. The subject area that drew the most interest among these workshops was Apple iOS products, particularly the presentation "Ins and Outs of the iPhone 4S" which had 77 attendees. After this presentation, several attendees followed up by requesting one-on-one consultations on this topic.

Photo of a workshop at the CCVIP Demo Center.

Caption: Workshop at CCVIP Demo Center

All presentations were videoed, and CCVIP is in the process of uploading them to the CCVIP YouTube channel. These longer presentations are in addition to the more than 18 short videos that offer descriptions of individual devices, which are available to those who are unable to attend the workshops or need additional information and instruction. To date, the channel has received well over 9,000 views.

Sample Quotes from Workshop Participants

Following various Demo Center workshops, participants were interviewed about their experiences and thoughts toward the presentations. The attendees who were interviewed ranged from those who had been coming to the workshops for years to some who were first-time attenders. However, the common theme from all of the attendees was the focus on the audience's needs and wants. One attendee, who has been coming to the Demo Center for two years, claimed that he owned several of the products that were just demoed, and he continues to come since "I learn more each year because new stuff comes out year after year." The presentations remain relevant.

Those interviewed mentioned that, because the Demo Center continues to present new products, they are able to remain technologically current, with one attendee saying that he made a product purchase "just from the fact that I learned about it from here." Additionally, many attendees found that one of the most helpful parts of the demonstration was the practical information, such as where to purchase an item and how much it costs. Then, "They open it up for us and show us how it works," said one seasoned attendee. "A lot of other companies don't do that."

The Demo Center Can Supplement Commission Information and Services

Since the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (CBVH) is the largest service provider for legally blind individuals in the state of New York, it seemed important to gather its input. In the past six months, CCVIP saw a significant uptick in the numbers of CBVH counselors who attend the workshop presentations, but it wanted to get a sense from them as to the usefulness of the Demo Center for their clients. A researcher from the project interviewed the CBVH regional manager to gain the Commission's perspective. The interviewer was not known to the manager prior to this conversation. The interviewer reported the following:

  • Technology training for CBVH clients usually isn't the first priority. The Demo Center can fill this immediate gap for the client.
  • Generally, initial focus is on the CBVH client's need for safety in the home and mobility training.
  • A client's vocational goal may not entail technology training, but they may require it for their personal life. The Demo Center is a good place to get information.
  • CBVH said the Demo Center is a good place for clients to get information independently. CBVH counselors and clients have an interactive relationship. Clients go to CBVH counselors to get information, but it is empowering for them to get new information, come back, and tell the counselor, "This is what I learned."

Moving Forward

Looking to the future, the biggest challenge is to extend the reach of this project. The Demo Center has received some press, which led to a story on New York City's NY1 news channel as well as articles featuring CCVIP staff. This indicates the CCVIP is out there and starting to be known, but it recognizes many people experiencing declining vision are not reaching out to any agency at all. The organization plans to increase its use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to announce its events and availability.

The staff and organization leaders at the Demo Center continue to wonder whether other programs are using technology to build a bridge to service and whether others might view it as an intriguing strategy to be tried. The CCVIP welcomes information on what models are being used and how they can best share thoughts on engaging this underserved population and the communities that surround it, and on getting the word out about what's possible through technology and rehabilitation services.

If you would like to have more information about Baruch College and the CCVIP, contact Karen Gourgey.

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