An Assistive Technology Program in Washington State Dedicated to Helping Individuals with Disabilities

Laszlo Jajczay, DO-IT Ambassador

Individuals with disabilities face challenges that limit their ability to live productive lives. From socializing and communicating with peers to typing on a computer or performing certain tasks for a job, they often don’t have the tools and resources that make it easier to succeed in less accessible settings.

That’s where the Washington Assistive Technology Act Program (WATAP) comes in. WATAP is a program that provides “services and resources to individuals with disabilities as well as older adults,” said Alan Knue, the program’s director. “Our mandate is statewide. We serve from birth through adulthood and aging.”

They conduct their services through the University of Washington campus where they prioritize technology in the fields of education, employment, and the community. WATAP operates under four core programs with regards to assistive technology.

“The first one is device demonstration, which allows people to have a tour of what AT is available for whatever their needs are with a professional guiding the way. And that’s intended to help people make informed decisions about which assistive technology (AT) work for them,” said Knue. This is similar to the device lending program, which allows clients to “borrow equipment for up to three weeks. And that allows them to try the assistive technology before they purchase it.” Both of these programs allows people to evaluate the effectiveness of a software application for their needs.

The other two programs that WATAP involve methods to acquire and access technology. “We have two major partners in state financing. We partner with the Northwest Access Fund to provide financing for assistive technology,” said Knue. “We also partner with the Perkins School for the Blind to run the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program in Washington, which provides distance communication equipment, as well as training to individuals who have combined vision and hearing loss.”

WATAP offers a variety of assistive technology services that people can use for work, school, and other general life activities. They employ a number of AT specialists to work within the community. “The big part of what the AT specialists do for WATAP is we do a lot of professional training,” said Maria Kelley, WATAP’s senior assistive technology specialist. “And then we also do outreach presentations to various organizations who are requesting those types of presentations.” 

WATAP’s AT specialists also work with people with disabilities on a one-on-one basis. They provide training on a variety of technology and confirm whether a person with a disability can access their technology and use it as intended. “We have them try their software in the various applications that they have to use the program, whether that’s a word document or navigate various web pages,” said Kelley. One example is when someone wants to use speech-to-text or speech-recognition software to control their computer or create documents or emails. “That’s how we gather information as to whether or not their voice is going to be compatible with the program and whether or not they have the cognitive abilities to be able to use it successfully and recall and learn the voice commands.” 

AT specialists also do regular requests with school districts throughout the year to see what kind of software or devices students with disabilities need to make things more accessible. On top of that, they continue to review what types of technology are needed in the community so that WATAP can offer a wide variety of options.

Individuals with disabilities often don’t have the financial resources to purchase assistive technology equipment. WATAP steps in to cover those costs. “We try to purchase technology that the common person isn’t often able to afford so that they have an opportunity to try it out for the three-week period to help them make a more informed decision prior to making that financial investment on the technology,” said Kelley.

Knue hopes that individuals with disabilities can use assistive technology to their advantage in order to be successful not only in their academic careers, but also in their professional and personal lives as well.

“Giving people the tools that work for them is a really important piece of being able to participate in whatever they want to do. Whether that’s going into the grocery store, taking a class, or working their job.” said Knue. “We’re hoping that the ability to have demonstrations and lending, and maybe some alternative ways of getting the equipment, will help them get that equipment so that they’re able to succeed.”