Congress should renew a law that provides funding to help disabled students and adults get access to assistive technologies, according to witnesses who testified before a House Education and Workforce subcommittee March 21.

At stake is more than $60 million in funding under a federal program called the Assistive Technology Act. Administered by the Education Department’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the program gives seed money to states for various assistive technology projects, such as information and referral services, demonstration projects, and purchasing or refurbishment of equipment for people with disabilities.

Authorization of the act expires in fiscal year 2004, and next year 23 states are scheduled to be eliminated from funding under the act’s sunset provision.

The House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness held the first in a series of hearings March 21 to provide legislators with information on the program’s effectiveness as they ultimately decide its fate.

The hearing testimony “will help the subcommittee assess whether these federal assistive technology programs have fulfilled their original purpose,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

They have, according to the witnesses who testified.

“The flexibility of the [program] has allowed each state to prioritize its assistive technology needs and uniquely develop strategies to meet those needs,” said Mark Schultz, director of the Nebraska Department of Education’s Assistive Technology Partnership.

He added: “The bottom line is that more and more of the 50 million individuals with a disability in the United States are getting and using assistive technology to live independently, go to school and work, and participate in their communities than before the [act] was created.”

Schultz said 31 percent of his agency’s yearly budget, or about $380,000, currently comes from the Assistive Technology Act, which has made a difference for many disabled children enrolled in Nebraska schools. Its funds help operate the Nebraska Educational Assistive Technology Center, which in turn provides technical assistance, discount purchasing, and equipment loans and recycling to schools and students.

“Last year, the [center] provided information, training, and support to 5,400 educators, parents, and related service providers,” Schultz said.

Schools that have used the center’s discount purchasing process have saved $90,000 during the last three years, and the use of loaner devices has saved school districts an estimated $80,000, he said.

“These services did not exist prior to the [act],” said Schultz.

Carol Novak, mother of a 26-year-old son with cerebral palsy, told lawmakers that a variety of assistive technologies help her son live a more independent and productive life—including a power wheelchair for mobility, an augmentative communication device, and word prediction software for computer access.

Novak said the principal source of funding for such equipment in the case of school-age children is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), provided a student’s individual education plan calls for assistive technology.

But “even when a person is eligible for [IDEA], it is often difficult to get funding approval for the purchase of assistive technology—challenging battles and long waiting periods are typical,” she said. “For this reason, I support continued funding [to state agencies under the Assistive Technology Act] to advocate for people’s assistive technology needs.”

Also testifying before the committee were Paul Rasinski, executive director of the Maryland Technology Assistance Program, and William N. Ward, executive director of the Virginia-based Independent Empowerment Center.

Though the Assistive Technology Act is not up for reauthorization until 2004, a committee spokeswoman said there will be more hearings regarding assistive technology over the next year.

Related links:
House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/NIDRR

Nebraska Educational Assistive Technology Center
http://www.neatinfo.net