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. According to those who testified, the program has been a success so far.

Mark Schultz, director of the Nebraska Department of Education’s Assistive Technology Partnership, 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.

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

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.

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.”

Though the Assistive Technology Act is not scheduled for reauthorization until 2004, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce said there will be three or four more hearings regarding assistive technology over the next year.

Related links:
House Committee on Education and the Workforce

National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research

Nebraska Educational Assistive Technology Center