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How assistive devices can make workers or customers with a disability more productive

person in wheelchair using assisted device


On my recent trip to San Antonio, Texas, I had the privilege to meet Jose E. Hernandez, a licensed engineer and part-owner of Rehab Engineering Inc. Since 1973, Jose and his wife Anna, an occupational therapist, have helped disabled persons acquire the assistive devices (from communications and environmental control) they need to become more productive at work, to find the right assistive devices to function in their day-to-day lives and to re-enter the labour market after facing a permanent or temporary disability.

Jose is usually retained by insurance companies or the employer to directly assist an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition or use of an assistive device.

The crucial need for rehabilitation engineers in the United States is due in part to the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Regulations, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications. The Act also applies to the US Congress. Assistive technology provided by rehabilitation engineers can play a major role in helping to realize the goals of the ADA.

Assistive technology provided by rehabilitation engineers can also play a major role in realizing the goals of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which is to make Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025. Accessibility standards are the rules that businesses and organizations in Ontario have to follow to identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility in the areas of customer service, employment, information and communication, transportation and the built environment (the latter is not yet law).

Under the AODA, assistive technology can impact how you provide accessible formats and communication supports to a person with a disability, and can also impact reasonable/individualized accommodation for students and employees with disabilities.

I wanted to know more.

What is rehabilitation engineering?

According to Wikipedia:

Rehabilitation engineering is the systematic application of engineering sciences to design, develop, adapt, test, evaluate, apply and distribute technological solutions to problems confronted by individuals with disabilities. Functional areas addressed through rehabilitation engineering may include mobility, communications, hearing, vision, and cognition, and activities associated with employment, independent living, education, and integration into the community….

The rehabilitation process for people with disabilities often entails the design of assistive devices…intended to promote inclusion of their users into the mainstream of society, commerce, and recreation.

What is an assistive device?

According to Cornell University, assistive technology was first defined in the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 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.”

Assistive technology includes devices and services that help people in their daily lives at home, work, school and the community. It includes:

  • Hearing aids
  • Ramps and platforms that help people get in and around buildings more easily
  • Wheelchairs
  • Computer modifications to increase accessibility
  • Electronic devices that make communication possible
  • Modified or customized job equipment
  • Voice recognition remote devices that turn appliances, computers, lights, radio, etc., on and off
  • Magnifiers, talking books, closed circuit television
  • Braille note-taking computers
  • Speech recognition devices

For the workplace, it is any device that can assist an individual with a disability to succeed on the job.

How can assistive technology help employers and other organizations?

Jose does just more than provide the person with a disability with an assistive device. He tries to find the one that will best fit the person with a disability, so that they can be more productive and fulfil their purpose at work, at home, at school and in their community.

According to Jose, this requires analysis and training.

An evaluation is crucial because it addresses the issues regarding short/long term goals, employment potential, environment, capability of the client, etc. The key is optimal integration of the device with the client to perform the goals identified. Sometimes an off-the-shelf product works as-is. Sometimes it has to be modified a little; sometimes a lot. Often, the devices are mounted in unique positions and odd angles in order to accommodate the user.

Training is the glue that determines how well the system holds up. Training is much more than just showing a client a few ways to move a mouse via voice. Training is complete when the client demonstrates Independent performance of a defined goal. To be effectual, training must contain a core of components: (1) reference point, (2) goals, (3) knowledge/devices and (4) application.

(1) & (2) define where the client is and where he’s heading. (3) Identifies the tools with which to accomplish the transition and (4) is the proof of the pudding: the hands-on which the client must perform to demonstrate success.

Employers often do not hire applicants with disabilities or retain employees with disabilities, because they do not know or understand how the individual can perform the essential functions of the job with the use of an assistive device.

Nevertheless, assistive technology can play a critical role in complying with reasonable/individualized accommodations. Providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability can include the acquisition or modification of equipment or devices. For example:

Sally, born with cerebral palsy, uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to talk with her fellow employees and to present speeches at conferences.

Jason was injured in a fall and uses a wheelchair. He continues to work at his office using equipment that is set on lower worktables and has front controls.

Marion, who sustained a head injury from a car accident, uses an electronic notebook to help her complete her day-to-day job-related tasks.

Source: “Assistive Technology, Accommodations, and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” by Nell Bailey of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.

For the purpose of the AODA, the Customer Service Standard requires that all providers of goods or services develop a policy on allowing people to use their own personal assistive devices to access the goods and services provided and on any situations where such use may not be permitted. The policy should also address any measures the organization offers to enable people with disabilities to access its goods and use its services. This may include assistive devices, services or methods offered such as alternative document formats, or assistance by a staff person.

Alternative formats, addressed under the Customer Service, Information and Communication Standards of the AODA, allow users to communicate and access information and library and educational resources. People interact, learn and communicate in diverse ways. Learning opportunities are increased when flexible ways of engaging with learning materials are provided. Considering how people communicate is important for knowledge to be exchanged. Alternative formats take into account these diverse ways of exchanging information.

In addition, the Information and Communication Standard requires that educational institutions and their employees know how to produce accessible or conversion-ready versions of textbooks and printed material and be knowledgeable at interacting and communicating with people with disabilities who may use alternative formats and devices.

In the library context, assistive technologies are used primarily to provide or increase access to library-related goods and services for people with disabilities. Examples include magnification and amplification devices, page-turners, enhancements to computer workstations, text-to-speech software, etc.

The Accessibility Standard for Employment will help Ontario businesses and organizations make accessibility a regular part of finding, hiring and supporting employees with disabilities. This includes knowing what processes will be modified to individually accommodate applicants and employees with disabilities

So it is important to try to understand assistive technology and the services that rehabilitation engineers can provide to meet the needs of your customers, applicants and employees with a disability.

Industry Canada’s comprehensive list of assistive device companies can be searched by province and disability, as well as alphabetically. It includes links to accommodation consultants, accessible web consultants and multiple format companies, and provides a short and long description of each.

I hope this brief overview on assistive technology has given you something to think about to make your organization or workplace accessible. And maybe you will reconsider passing up on that applicant or employee who has a disability but much ability for lack of understanding.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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