It seems to be the unfortunate truth, at least here in the United States of America, that there exists a relationship between the blindness assistive technology industry and the system of state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies that does not usually include the consumer. The Vocational Rehabilitation agency is the customer, so the industry listens by and large to the agency rather than the consumer receiving the products or services they need in order to live, learn and work. The assistive technology companies have no business incentive to do anything contrary to the desires of their high-dollar agency customers. The Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, with perhaps a handful of small exceptions, do not tend to listen to their clients and put their recommendations into practice. It is ultimately up to the consumers of assistive technology within the blind community to make a positive difference. Here are some thoughts on the hard decisions that need to be made and the things I believe need to happen in order to radically change the relationships between assistive technology companies, consumers and the agencies:
- Consumers need to fully research and take full responsibility for their assistive technology acquisitions, whether that be accomplished through relatives, service organizations, Vocational Rehabilitation or their own financial resources. This research could be conducted through Tech Act centers, the International Braille and Technology Center and other blind community resources. We must exercise due diligence to determine which technologies will meet our needs and desires. Even when the funds being spent are not our own, we must do all we can to responsibly act as though it is our money on the line. After all, isn’t the purpose for obtaining and learning to use assistive technology to better our lives through education, business ownership or gainful employment?
- Vocational Rehabilitation should ultimately help only with aspects of education and employment that impact the person’s disabilities. For example, VR should not fund the individual’s tuition, which is a cost shared by people with and without disabilities. VR should, however, fund expenses such as the hiring of readers and the purchase of duplicate books required in order to reproduce them in accessible formats. From an assistive technology point of view, VR should not purchase computers, but should purchase Braille displays, note takers, screen readers and other items specific to the needs of the blind or visually impaired consumer.
- The ability to receive Vocational Rehabilitation services should be based largely on the severity of the disability and its relationship to their perceived functional limitations in employment rather than on income. Even people with high incomes combined with disabilities pay taxes into this system and, thus, should be able to receive the same service levels.
- A lifetime amount of funding should be set aside for the individual receiving service to be spent by that individual in a responsible manner. The individual should do the spending themselves, which could be capped at a maximum annual rate. Once the funds have been spent, there should be no more funding granted to that individual, without exception. I am essentially advocating a voucher program. The Vocational Rehabilitation agencies could devise a comprehensive, vendor-neutral list of suppliers through which consumers could contact in order to directly spend their VR funds. If a Vocational Rehabilitation client wanted to purchase JAWS, they could contact Freedom Scientific or an authorized dealer to make that purchase against the remaining funds in their VR account. Similarly, they could contact a Code Factory dealer to directly use their funds to purchase MobileSpeak Pocket for their Smart Phone, or contact Serotek to acquire RIM for use on their new job. The bureaucracy would be totally removed.
- The Vocational Rehabilitation counselor’s role should switch from one of ultimate control to one of advisor.
- The success of counselors and other Vocational Rehabilitation “professionals” should be based on much more than just entry-level employment. For example, their case closure scores should be higher if they help a consumer earn a job that pays significantly above minimum wage. This would serve to encourage these professionals to do more than the bare minimum for their clients.
- Consumers should also be held accountable. If a consumer is receiving assistance with college related expenses, but that consumer is consistently earning poor grades, then there should come a point where that college related funding is suspended.
- Services ought not always be provided to the “lowest common denominator” of consumers. If a consumer is deemed incompetent (unable to manage his or her own affairs) by a qualified entity such as a court of law, then that person’s legal guardian should be involved in their Vocational Rehabilitation case. In all other situations, consumers should always be treated as competent adult individuals.
If some of these ideas were implemented, I’m rather certain I could guarantee the relationship between assistive technology companies, consumers and Vocational Rehabilitation agencies would change radically for the better. After all, despite the agencies, it would ultimately be the consumer making the purchasing decisions, thus compelling those companies to listen to us directly.