Tennessee pandemic relief program introduces gadgets to help people with disabilities

(Photo: Getty Images)

Under the American Rescue Plan approved last year by Democrats in Congress, more funding has been aimed at supporting Tennesseans with disabilities in their homes and communities. One state program, Enabling Technology, introduces gadgets to lessen dependence on in-home helpers.

Some $5.5 million is newly directed to the Enabling Technology program, which will grow from its 200 initial participants to more than 2,000.

The program aims to help those with disabilities live a more independent life and become less reliant on in-person help. Two-way audio and video communication implemented by Enabling Technology lets caregivers check in remotely.

The program also introduces various smart home devices, like tablets that can control thermostats, lights, opening doors and the like. Newer technology called Eyedriveomatic lets users control a wheelchair with their eyes. Voiceitt is another innovation that translates for people with non-traditional speech. Enabling Technology has also connected some with an app that helps the person navigate the transit system with verbal prompts. It's all to help people reach their goals for independent living and, in some cases, employment.

(READ MORE: Over 83,000 added to TennCare as pandemic drives more Tennesseans into poverty)

For early adopters and roommates David Slack and Tony Harper, moving out of their family homes initially meant moving to a facility with staff present 24/7. In 2018, they were some of the first to benefit from smart home features through the program and moved into their own home in Lebanon, Tennessee.

Now, the two friends have a house manager who comes in for half the day, just four days a week.

They have cameras outside the doors. Cooking is one of Harper's big hobbies, and they'll be alerted if the stove is left on. An alarm rings out through the speakers in the house to say it's time to take medications. An automated dispenser distributes the medicine. An emergency button is available, if needed.

"If somebody walks up to the house, we can look on our phones and see who it is. We can even ask, 'What do you want?' or 'How can I help you?' whatever the case may be. If it's staff, we can let them in, but if we don't know them, we don't have to answer the door or anything like that," Slack said.

He's quite impressed by the technology - the little robot that gives him his prescription each morning - though he jokes about being annoyed by the alarm that wakes him up for work. Having met goals of getting employment (both do custodial work) and living outside a facility, the next goal is to take it one step further and live alone, they both said.


Cara Kumari, spokesperson with the Tennessee Department Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities, said the biggest barrier to success in the program is making people aware of the technology they could have and getting them comfortable using it. Another key, though, is having reliable internet access and phone service, which can be an issue in the more rural areas of Tennessee. It's especially important there, where help may be further spread out and connectivity really has the power to give more access to resources.

(READ MORE: Tennessee preparing to launch insurance program for disabled children)

"I would have said four years ago [a barrier is] changing people's perceptions about whether a person can be supported [with technology]. But now really the proof is there and now we're talking about barriers that are a little bit more concrete in the sense of access to internet," Kumari said.

Some form of technological assistance for those with disabilities has been offered since the late 1990s, and part of Milton Neuenschwander's job as director of Enabling Technology for the Department of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities is to bring those services up to date. Next, the department is looking into virtual reality as a way to introduce people with disabilities to new environments.

"We see Enabling Technology as kind of complementary to our assistive technology service that has been around for quite some time. The biggest thing is, you know, that assisted technology service was developed in like 1998, so 20-some years ago. So with the new advancements in technology, we wanted to be able to incorporate those newer types of technologies that have really been made to help people with disabilities be more inclusive within their communities and do more things on their own," he said.

Early on, Neuenschwander said, he learned that when offering support to those with disabilities, the program often offered too much. He saw people feel more confident and empowered as they became less dependent on caregivers.

"We never really, completely understood how capable people were, and quite often we tried to provide them with too much direct support whenever they didn't really need staff there 24/7. And then really, some of the individuals that we support, didn't really want staff there 24/7," he said. "So, through this using technology, we were able to find a more person-centered approach to providing the correct services and the frequency of services to our individuals, especially with the direct support."

(READ MORE: Tennessee families struggle with state agencies to get home-based care for those with disabilities)

To help people picture what Enabling Technology can offer in the way of smart home features, guests can visit one of the program's model homes in Nashville or Greenville, Tennessee.

When asked what advice he'd give to new people who will receive enabling technology under the American Rescue Plan, Slack said he would tell them they were "going to be happy."

"The house is gonna let you know things. This is one of the best smart homes. The state is really doing a wonderful thing, doing that. ... You don't understand how it really actually feels to feel brand new," he said. "It's a big change for me and Tony. This here is brand new. This is lovely."

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.