“The AT service delivery part is where we need to focus our efforts”

Only 4 weeks to go until the #AAATE2019 Congress in Bologna. In the run-up to this gathering of over 300 international assistive technology experts, Dr. Marcia Scherer gave us some insights into her extensive experience in the AT sector and her expectations for #AAATE2019.

Marcia is a rehabilitation psychologist and founding President of the Institute for Matching Person & Technology.  She is also Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Rochester Medical Center and founding Editor of the journal, Disability and Rehabilitation:  Assistive Technology.

  • Can you give us a quick overview of your background and experience in the assistive technology sector?

Marcia: I started in the AT field when it was still a beginning field. At the time, neither rehabilitation counselors nor psychologists were taught about technology for people with disabilities, which was unfortunate because they have so much to offer the AT field! If we can partner with engineers and computer scientists and designers, in addition to individuals who have disabilities, we can uncover what people’s dreams and goals are, as well as functional needs,  and then we can target  ways technology can support them. With this approach, the likelihood of finding a good match between people and technology greatly increases.

That is what I focus on: the individual and what there is to better support the individual in achieving their dreams and goals. That may be a technology, or it may not be. It may be a strategy, a personal assistant, a service animal, it may be a universally designed or everyday product…. most likely a combination of these.

In short, I am a rehabilitation psychologist and counselor and I am looking for the right recipe of solutions for the people I work with.

I really got started in AT around 1982 when I started my doctoral studies. My husband is an electrical engineer and he read in his trade journals about products being developed for people that had lost limbs or had week functioning. But looking at those products, he thought that he would not want to wear something like that, that he would feel stigmatized. So, he talked to me and wondered if I would be interested in doing something about  that since I was working in this area. And that’s what I did.

  • We see today a strong push towards making products and services more accessible for persons with functional limitations. Is this support or competition to the AT sector?

Marcia: That is what we have been striving for! That way, the individual doesn’t feel stigmatized and cost goes down. I am not worried that accessible mainstream devices are a competition for the AT sector. There is always going to be the need for specialized products, because people need their own unique solutions.

One very basic example: take today’s cars. They have all sorts of available options: rear-view directions, signal sensors, all kinds of entertainment options… Personally, I don’t like that because I find it distracting and would like to have the option of not having those features and not to pay for them. Also, in my book Living in the State of Stuck, I talk about Theresa who has Down Syndrome. She and her friend Maggie who had physical impairments, were able to get out of the nursing home and live independently, because between the two of them they had everything covered, both in mobility and intellect. Theresa has a driver’s license but she is still driving her very old van because of how complicated newer vehicles have become. So she foregoes the better safety of a new vehicle for the simplicity of the older one.

  • What are the most important challenges we need to tackle in the #AT sector in the next 6-12 months?

Marcia: Two main things: we have to find the time to do good upfront comprehensive assessments and good comprehensive follow-ups. We know that many times people get a product or device or technology and abandon the use of it, because it does not fit perfectly. It could often fit perfectly with only a small adjustment or add-ons but we do not get there.

People abandon the technology out of frustration, lack of needs and preferences being really met. I would estimate the abandonment rate of AT around 30% and that rate has not budged in decades! And I believe the root problem is that we are not doing the thorough assessment that would be needed nor the necessary follow-ups, because they are not adequately reimbursed or built into the schedule.

We could remedy this by getting the individual together with the product designer and relevant providers and find together the best solution and then have periodic checks to see how the product continues to work for the person. Because not only technology, but people change. When they have learnt to do more, they might want to have technology that enables them to do more in additional areas.

It is the AT service delivery part that we need to focus on. I think we have great products, but we need to improve the match of them with the individuals who could benefit from them.  

  • What would be a valuable outcome for #AAATE2019 – for your personally and for the AT sector overall?

Marcia: What’s already been started: a good global cooperation. The first step is done with the six sister organisations AAATE, ARATA, RESJA, RESNA, RESKO and TREATS signing an agreement founding the International Alliance of Assistive Technology Organisations (IAATO).

Coming together and working together in basic areas where we share common issues is important. Than we can split off and do each for ourselves the more country-specific things like dealing with reimbursement schemes etc. There is power in numbers!

  • What would be your advice to young people starting off in the #AT sector?

Marcia: I encourage everyone to get involved in this area! AT is still such a new field with a lot of room for innovation, disruption, creativity. There are many, many opportunities as we engage with bio-engineers, people working with robotics and artificial Intelligence, sensing and monitoring products…. AT is a field of the future and the need for AT is only going to grow!