On any given day up to 25 individuals with varied disabilities are hard at work in the EP!C Hub computer lab in Peoria, earning a paycheck and cultivating independence thanks to assistive technology.
The Hub has a variety of adaptive equipment, including specialized keyboards and screen-reading software. Hub workers with disabilities design and print flyers, posters and calendars; create business cards; and even make and sell their own greeting cards.
“Technology definitely helps them to work and live a more rewarding fulfilling productive life. Because a lot of them have those abilities; they just need a little bit of assistance,” said Lauren Coyle, EP!C’s director of specialized programs.
Evolving technology is impacting millions of disabled Americans. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five Americans — about 53 million people — has a disability of some kind. About 33 million have a disability that makes it difficult to carry out daily activities, which is where assistive technology comes in.
Kellie Branch-Dircks, a licensed clinical social worker who helps ALS patients, has seen first-hand how assistive technology can make a difference in a person’s life. Most ALS patients experience difficulty with speech and movement and many completely lose the ability to speak and use their hands. Electronic communication devices can help restore a patient’s ability to communicate.
“Communication is an element of quality of life,” Branch-Dircks said. “Communication devices allow patients to continue to express their thoughts and needs, even when their vocal ability is too compromised to be understood, if they don’t have the stamina to speak or if they have no vocalization left at all.”
Not being able to communicate would be devastating to patients, she added.
“ALS robs patients of their voluntary muscle control but not their personality and thoughts,” Branch-Dircks explained. “Without the ability to communicate, patients would struggle emotionally with depression, hopelessness and anger more than some already do. Communication options are of value to the patients and the caregivers and family members.”
Pekinite Perry Martin, who became disabled in a horrific work accident in 2008, said technology has played a big role in helping him overcome his disability.
“My legs would be chattering nonstop if I didn’t have a baclofen pump in me,” he said. “It delivers medicine right into my spinal cord that calms the nerve endings down.”
Martin also has a specialized golf cart that allows him to play his favorite sport again.
“It has a seat that swivels and a big leather chest protector/holder that goes around my chest and a seat belt. A toggle shift stands you up in a standing position to be able to hit the golf ball. They’re specially designed to be able to go right on the greens and put less pounds per square inch than a person does walking,” he said.
Martin has seen many ways that technology helps disabled persons through his involvement in disability advocacy groups.
“New things are being invented and discovered all the time. It’s almost like if you can think of it, somebody can build it and make life better for people who have disabilities,” he said.
Lauren Coyle said in the past people who had difficulty communicating might use an actual book they could flip through to point at pictures that depicted what they wanted to say.
“Now we have so many technologically based communication devices that look like a little iPad or laptop that mount on their wheelchair. Of course, those are really expensive, so we do still have some people that use the books,” Coyle said.
For more information or to volunteer at EP!C, contact volunteer coordinator Angela Anderson at 689-3606 or visit epicpeoria.org. For more information about assistive technology, visit the NIH website at www.nih.gov.
By Elise Zwicky / Times Correspondent