CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Access to assistive technologies (AT) may be a critical factor in the employment success of persons with spinal cord injury or disease (SCID), according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Study findings suggest that AT is important for employment success, however, the relationship between AT ownership and employment appears to be affected by a wide range of variables.
As defined in the 1988 Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, AT is "... any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."
The Illinois study assessed the use of AT across seven categories: manual mobility and independent living devices, powered mobility and independent living devices, prosthetic and orthotic devices, adapted computer technology, assistive listening devices, assistive seeing devices, and augmentative and alternative communication devices.
Although employer AT accommodation reports were positive, the high cost of some assistive technologies may still prevent persons with disabilities from joining the labor force, especially those most inclined toward self-employment. The study, which analyzed data from two groups of working-aged adults with SCID - 94 Illinois alumni and 101 adults with mixed educational backgrounds - was conducted by a team of researchers led by Brad Hedrick, the director of the university's Division of Rehabilitation-Education Services.
Hedrick said the research was motivated, in part, by the fact that "little is known about the extent to which AT ownership promotes employment outcomes."
In this study, the researchers determined that the mean cost of AT devices was 68 to 124 percent greater for persons who were self-employed than for individuals in other areas of employment. "Depending upon the individual's underwriting resource options, this could be a substantial barrier to individuals for whom entrepreneurial work at home is the most viable employment option," Hedrick said. That includes individuals with more severe disabilities, those for whom transportation is a major obstacle, or those whose routine medical appointments require substantial time away from a traditional office setting.
"People who are self-employed don't have a lot of environmental assets that you'd have in a corporate structure," Hedrick said. "Some things would have to be procured and would exacerbate start-up costs."
In the study, "the majority of the devices owned by the respondents were characterized as important to work, and devices identified as important to work were 3.5 times more expensive than other devices," Hedrick said. The mean cost per AT device owned by the two groups was more than $2,000. This was because of the prevalence of such expensive devices as wheelchairs, motorized carts, power lifts and automobile control systems.
The study indicates that many employers today recognize the value of making workplace accommodations available to employees with disabilities.
"Access to workplace accommodations appears to have been quite good for both the college-educated group and the mixed-education group, and AT satisfaction levels for all respondents were very high regardless of employment status and employment history," Hedrick said. Further, most workplace accommodations were reported to have already been at the work site or to have been implemented specifically for the respondent, and only one of 114 respondents who had worked in the previous five years reported having to change jobs as a result of the unavailability of AT.
"This seems to suggest that the unemployment of individuals with SCID is unlikely to be a function of insufficient access to AT in the workplace or the unwillingness of employers to provide necessary AT or other workplace accommodations."
Hedrick said the researchers weren't surprised to find a positive response from respondents regarding employers' willingness to provide AT, but "we were surprised that it was so overwhelmingly positive."
Hedrick hopes the survey tool the researchers developed for this study will be adapted to investigate the role of AT and employment outcomes for people with different types of disabilities. If barriers to employment could be removed, "the potential cost savings realized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) through the successful efforts to facilitate beneficiaries' return to work through AT use may prove to be considerable," Hedrick said.
Highlights of the study will be presented during a symposium hosted by the Disability Research Institute at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on March 16. DRI, based in the College of Applied Life Studies at Illinois, was established in 2001 to assist the SSA by conducting research that would inform policies and procedures affecting those applying for and receiving Social Security benefits. The institute is funded by a
five-year, cooperative agreement from SSA's Office of Disability Income Security Programs.