Closing the Gap: How One Organization is Empowering Georgians with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities with Inclusive Technology

Mark Friedman, Ph. D., and Ruther-Marie Beckwith, Ph. D., of Blue Fire Inc., a grantee of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), have recently done extensive research through the Georgia Technology White Paper with two objectives: to identify the barriers to technology access for people in the intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) community and to make concrete recommendations to support Georgians with I/DD in rural and underserved areas.

Through this study, the Georgia Technology White Paper aims to bring to light ways to bridge the technology gap between people with disabilities and the general population.

GCDD funded this study to understand how people with I/DD use technology. Friedman and Beckwith collected data on how people with I/DD integrate technology into their daily lives and identified significant accessibility issues.

COVID-19 had a substantial negative impact on people with I/DD, as technology became the sole means of maintaining contact with loved ones and health professionals, leading to increased isolation for them. Notably, the I/DD community was ahead of the curve with video conferencing, so when COVID-19 hit, this community adapted quickly.

This prior familiarity allowed many individuals to transition smoothly to the sudden reliance on digital communication. Despite this advantage, people with I/DD are still at great risk of being further left behind as technology growth quickens.

Research Methods Used

Blue Fire, Inc. employed a multitiered approach to gather comprehensive information from Georgia’s diverse I/DD community. Their methods included conducting online surveys, focus groups, interviews, and a thorough review of the current literature on technology use among people with disabilities. 

Online surveys enabled Friedman and Beckwith to collect responses from a large sample size, addressing questions such as, “How do you use technology?,” “What problems do you have with technology?,” and “What help do you need?”

The study revealed that, in the general population, 80% use technology for telehealth and 74% for making purchases. In contrast, among individuals with I/DD, these percentages are notably lower at 12% and 27%, respectively. 

People with I/DD primarily use the web for passive activities, such as watching videos and listening to music. Many use technology to combat isolation, with conversational AI helping to reduce feelings of loneliness. Before AI became widespread, technology was often confusing and complicated for many users. 

However, advancements have made technology increasingly user-friendly and accessible.

As part of the Georgia Technology White Paper research, Blue Fire, Inc. conducted 88 in-depth interviews with people with I/DD, experts, family members, teachers, and professionals, including state technology directors. These interviews allowed Friedman and Beckwith to gather a wide range of perspectives on technology access within the I/DD community and to record valuable input on the most effective ways to provide support. 

A focus group facilitator and self-advocate Sandra Wilcox has learned to use technology to be proactive with her work schedule. She says she “use[s] technology every day…to remind [her] of when her meetings are.” 

Focus group participants discussed their preferred ways of using technology, such as playing games, listening to music, connecting with friends, and attending virtual religious gatherings. 

Through these focus groups, the agency learned that the primary barriers to technology use were limited access to devices and the internet, lack of support and training, and the high costs associated with technology.

In the focus groups, Rick, a participant, uses his Alexa Echo to ask about the weather, listen to music, and ask questions. Rick said, “I live alone and am lonely, so I like hearing Alexa talk to me’.” 

A review of current literature helped identify the most effective strategies for bridging the technology gap.

The agency found that 16 states have implemented successful programs to enable people with I/DD to use technology and achieve greater independence. These states’ Medicaid waiver programs allocate significantly higher funding for technology. They also implement training to make technology more accessible and host conferences for community members to learn and engage. 

Recommendations and Considerations

When starting this project, Friedman and Beckwith were committed to providing specific recommendations to bridge the technology access gap. Their first recommendation is for GCDD to establish an Enabling Technology Taskforce to develop a strategic plan. 

This task force should include people with I/DD and relevant stakeholders. The White Paper Advisory Committee (PAC) could help lay the groundwork for this effort. 

Another recommendation is for the council to collaborate with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) to draft policies on technology access for the I/DD community. An annual service plan meeting could include discussing technology usage, showcasing innovations, and fostering collaboration. 

Additionally, it was recommended that GCDD fund a project to help people with I/DD achieve equal access to technology. This program should include people with I/DD in leading roles, such as trainers, planners, and managers, and it should ensure that they are compensated for their work. 

The Georgia Technology study presented upcoming challenges and opportunities for GCDD to have a significant impact. 

Expanding broadband internet is crucial for Georgia to become a Technology First state, where technology is prioritized in support options. However, it remains expensive, and rural areas have decreased connectivity. 

According to the Georgia Technology White Paper, AI is emerging as a useful tool for individuals with I/DD, yet it often “lacks disability representation and includes negative portrayals of people with disabilities and other marginalized groups.

Modern enabling technology, such as smart devices, support the I/DD community to live as independently as possible, but the relatively low funding for I/DD services hinders widespread adoption. 

According to a Advancing Technology Access for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, by Shea Tanis, PhD at the University of Colorado, broadband coverage is expanding thanks to a $1.3 billion federal government grant. Access to the Internet is essential for Georgia’s Technology First State initiative, “where technology is considered first in support options, promoting meaningful participation, social inclusion, self-determination, and quality of life.

Georgia’s Medicaid Waivers program has also been approved to cover assistive technology for people with I/DD for up to $2,000 annually. Blue Fire, Inc. recommends that GCDD prioritize promoting policies for broadband expansion and data collection, allocating grants to promote enabling technology, and ensuring the inclusion of people with I/DD in all tech-related discussions. Technology is expanding rapidly, and its changes are often unpredictable. 

Looking into the Future

Addressing technology access is crucial, not just for inclusion, but to tackle the direct support professional (DSP) staffing crisis. Georgia’s two Medicaid waiver programs, the New Options Waiver Program (NOW) and Comprehensive Support Waiver Program (COMP), overlook a key solution: offering remote support services. 

What remote supports does provide, through technology, is a call center where people can be on their own and have support through a phone, computer, iPad, or all sorts of devices that can be helpful for people who have some significant disabilities. 

Sensors can alert the call center if somebody gets up in the morning or throughout the night. A bed sensor could even alert if someone has fallen out of bed. 

Imagine a system where sensors and video tools can trigger alerts if assistance is needed, freeing DSPs to focus on those requiring in-person support.

This innovative approach would allow individuals with I/DD to maintain safety and independence without a staff member being physically present at all times. It could also impact Georgia’s Direct Support Professional crisis. Remote support can help ensure that people have the right levels of support, and those who need more in-person care would have more access to DSPs. 

Individuals with I/DD can take a powerful step towards greater independence by claiming the $2,000 assistive technology benefit currently included in both Georgia Medicaid waiver programs. 

A surge in demand for assistive technology could send a powerful signal, illuminating the critical gap in accessible technology solutions for the I/DD community and compelling lawmakers to address it urgently. 

Friedman suggests another effective way to bridge the technology gap: help someone you know with an I/DD in learning the basics. Technology companies respond to market demand. When more people with I/DD have access to smartphones and other basic devices, the industry will be more likely to develop solutions tailored to their specific needs.

The Georgia Technology White Paper concludes that technology is not a luxury for people with I/DD; it’s necessary for inclusion and independence. 

The findings highlight both existing challenges and promising opportunities. Expanding broadband access, funding enabling technologies, and including individuals with I/DD in technology discussions are necessary for a more equitable future. 

According to IBM’s 1991 Training Manual, technology makes things easier for people without disabilities. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.”

By prioritizing equitable access to technology, Georgia can unlock the potential for individuals with I/DD to lead fulfilling and independent lives. This collaborative effort, driven by the voices of the I/DD community, can pave the way for a more inclusive and empowered future for all Georgians.