The Improving Access to Assistive Technology for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004, signed into law by President Bush on October 25, 2004, ensures the continued existence of a major source of funding for assistive technology. This is a reauthorization of the Assistive Technology Act that has been on the books since 1998, but its purpose and the related services have not always been apparent or well publicized to the intended recipients. The goal of the act is to provide assistive technology to persons with disabilities, so they can more fully participate in education, employment, and daily activities on a level playing field with other members of their communities. Under the law, each U.S. state and territory receives a grant to fund an Assistive Technology Act Project (ATAP). These projects provide services to persons with disabilities for their entire life span, as well as to their families or guardians, service providers, and agencies and other entities that are involved in providing services such as education and employment to persons with disabilities.
Although the program has been in existence for some time, the new legislation makes significant strides toward providing appropriate assistive technology to every person with a disability who needs it. First, up till now the law expired each year, unless its authorization (or license to continue to do business and to be considered in the annual budget) was renewed. Thus, advocates had to lobby Congress each year for a waiver of these sunset provisions to continue the provisions of the law and to obtain appropriations to fund the programs. Elimination of the sunset provisions represents an important commitment on the part of the federal government and removes a recurring obstacle to services for people with disabilities. Second, the way in which the Assistive Technology Act Projects were created from state to state meant that services and organization varied greatly. The new law is a bipartisan bill, and in drafting the law, representatives of all stakeholders—including consumers, advocates, and industry—worked to make the types of services provided by each state more consistent. In this way, citizens have more consistent, reliable services they can depend on if they move from state to state.
The 56 ATAPs created under the law provide a place where consumers can go for demonstrations of products they may be interested in obtaining, low-cost loans for their purchase, and information and referral on these products. Your state ATAP is the place to go to comparison shop before buying a screen magnifier, adapted personal digital assistant, or braille printer. If traveling to the location of the ATAP is a problem, arrangements can be made to ship equipment to you for a trial period.
States are to provide, either through the funding under this act or other sources, alternative financing for the purchase or lease of equipment, training and technical support for equipment, short-term loans of equipment, referrals for repairs and servicing of equipment, demonstration of equipment, and referrals for evaluation and assessment related to the selection and integration of appropriate assistive technology. Examples of entities that ATAPs need to work with include centers for independent living, hospitals, rehabilitation agencies, so-called one-stop offices (which were created to help persons with disabilities find employment under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998), and educational agencies.
Funding is made available for each state to provide legal assistance to consumers with disabilities on issues related to services provided by state and territory ATAPs. Thus, persons with disabilities who believe that they have been unjustly denied services by their state ATAPs may appeal the decisions or receive other legal assistance. Although various states were providing some of these services already, under the new legislation all states need to provide all of them in some manner.
In addition, there is a provision for discretionary funding for research and development projects, such as establishing standards for the interoperability of information technology and assistive technology and researching technical solutions to known problems or barriers. Funding for such projects will become available after Congress increases appropriations to more than $165,000 above the base funding. Universities, governmental agencies, commercial businesses, and nonprofit organizations will be eligible for this funding.
Current ATAP Activities
The level and the types of activities already undertaken by the various ATAPs have varied from state to state because of the way the programs are organized as well as variation in funding levels and the number of years that the programs have been in existence. In the state of Washington, for example, the program was instrumental in providing accessible technology for persons with disabilities to use when they obtained services from their state's one-stop offices. In Missouri, persons with disabilities can receive training in the use and integration of assistive technology and, in turn, obtain jobs to train other persons with disabilities to use computers to do basic word processing and surf the web. In Virginia, people have received assistance to make their homes accessible and to purchase vans and other equipment to enable them to return to work after they have become disabled. In Delaware, a music teacher with a visual impairment was able to retain her job in the school system by obtaining and receiving training on the use of software to enable her to read and grade her students' compositions.
Your State ATAP and You
Each state or territory must establish an advisory committee to determine the priorities and policies of its ATAP. These advisory committees must have a majority of persons representing the disability community, either through representation of an organization involved with disabled persons or by disabled individuals themselves. Consumers, professionals, and family members can ask to serve on an advisory committee in order to influence policy decisions that have an impact on them. Members are not paid for their work, but they may be reimbursed for expenses related to their service on the advisory committee.
These centers have become almost the only alternative, other than direct arrangements with manufacturers, to go for financial assistance with the extremely high prices of assistive technology. If you are considering the purchase of assistive technology, it pays for you to visit the center in your state, in person or on the Web. This will help you to become an informed consumer and make a better selection of assistive technology that fills your particular needs. If your state's ATAP has a newsletter, get on the mailing list to keep informed about policies and programs that may benefit you.
For More Information
For further information, go to the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs web site <www.ataporg.org/stateatprojects.asp>, which has a complete list of the state ATAPs, including contact information, and web sites. For an analysis of the act, go to the following web sites: <www.resna.org/taproject/at/connections.html>, <www.ittatc.org>, <www.assistivetech.net> (for information on technology), and <http://Thomas.loc.gov> and search for either H.R. 4278 or Assistive Technology Act. The American Foundation for the Blind will post an analysis of the act in the near future on its web site <www.afb.org>.