“We were emerging into an era that was really transformative for all of us, for our kids and for those of us with disabilities, that it really was going to change what life might look like. And the challenge for all of us was simply to imagine what an answer might be and then to begin to search for people who were approaching those similar kinds of solutions.”
— Jackie Brand
For anyone interested or involved with assistive technology a HUGE part of the story—history, actually—is the Alliance for Technology Access. For anyone new to the field, you may not even know about ATA or its invaluable contributions to so many people with disabilities and their families.
Today, after a Google search for “Alliance for Technology Access,” I got a URL that led to a blank page and a sadness that reflects an organic process that inevitably comes to an end as a grassroots movement morphs into something beyond a founding vision. Things change.
Now, with over thirty years in the field, I continue to witness rebirth, development, innovations, missions and an ongoing vision for accessible and affordable assistive technology. Today, the AT field has evolved and become professionalized which was inevitable and, for the most part, a positive outcome.
With some regret, however, I also watch as AT service delivery is now largely driven by organizational and institutional systems and models that fall short of the sheer energy and creativity of those early years when all one had to do was roll-up one’s sleeves and jump in head first—people with disabilities, mothers, fathers, grandparents, engineers, designers, and mom-and-pop innovators and entrepreneurs that built the AT industry from the garage floor up.
Those were heady times. People like Jackie Brand, Mary Lester, Alan Brightman, Bud and Dolores Hagen, Arjan Khalsa, Russ Holland, Garry Moulton, Don Johnston, Barry Romich, R.J. Cooper, Donna Dutton, Cheryl Volkman, Mary Ann Glicksman, Penny Reed, Harry Murphy, Margaret Doumitt—the list is long and goes on far beyond my own experience and memory. These were all people who shared a common vision—a vision that was in constant flux and step with the pace of the technology and innovation, itself.
As Jackie Brand, ATA’s first executive director and founder of the Disabled Children’s Computer Center in Berkeley described, “We were emerging into an era that was really transformative for all of us, for our kids and for those of us with disabilities, that it really was going to change what life might look like. And the challenge for all of us was simply to imagine what an answer might be and then to begin to search for people who were approaching those similar kinds of solutions.”
Early on there were two must-attend annual conferences—Closing the Gap in Minnesota and the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in California. These conferences were generously supported by Apple, Microsoft and a flotilla of emerging hardware and software companies. Like bears to honey, these conferences were flooded with people with disabilities, parents, children, teachers, therapists all hungry—really hungry—for access and opportunity. As personal computers moved into homes and classrooms, technology became an overflowing Holy Grail of promise and hope. These conference grew rapidly and hotel ballrooms had to be extended to simply accommodate the sheer volume of vendors, sessions, media, people and families. It was an explosion that lasted several years.
ATA became a network for computer and technology centers sprouting up across the nation and beyond—everyone sharing information, developing best practices, providing services and transforming lives. Long before the web, ATA collaborated with Apple to utilize an early e-mail system called AppleLink, where members shared questions and challenges that people were facing. From ATA Centers all across the nation members would respond with their experiences so that ATA began to build a knowledge base that just didn’t exist anyplace else. ATA broke an isolation that families had been feeling and built a community of like-minded pioneers.
The ATA history is a very rich one with all sorts of stories that capture the hopes and achievements of so many people. As I look back, perhaps the single-most important contribution ATA made was its development, articulation and commitment to a person- and family-center AT service delivery model shared throughout the organization and ATA Centers worldwide. For those in the know, this was no small accomplishment.
We were all forced to slow down, learn from our mistakes and share those experiences. Something that didn’t work would eventually lead to something that did. In so many ways, a person-centered model seems like common sense, something obvious, something intuitive, and yet one would be hard-pressed to find examples of person-centered AT service delivery models in practice today, all the institutional rhetoric notwithstanding.
As I look at that blank Google search page, I think about that model and what it means. Today, so many organizations and institutions—from school districts to state agencies and healthcare to rehabilitation systems—pay lip-service to person-centered service delivery models. There are many reasons why it breaks down but the most significant one is a simple lack of funding. AT is far more than the technology itself—without the necessary and supportive services it too often becomes a paperweight of plastic and wire. A person-centered service delivery model takes time—and often lots of it. AT is not a retail experience but a process. ATA understood this imperative from the get-go and required that all ATA Centers put the individual at the center of this process regardless of ability and need. It was a beautiful thing to watch and an amazing experience to share.