RALEIGH – While most kids and adults see high tech as productive tools or as fun games, for the folks at the G.R.E.A.T. conference, they are lifelines. The employers, rehab specialists and families come here to learn the latest techniques and technology to make life easier for students and employees with disabilities. Thursday, N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Rick Brajer was on hand to recognize the professionals who make this possible and pledge his support for their work.
“You all are making a difference for people every day,” said Brajer. “Know that it is making a difference. It’s changing lives. From my view it is God’s love in action, but from wherever you come, know that I appreciate it.”
The annual conference is a joint project of the N.C. Assistance Technology Program, part of the vocational rehabilitation services offered by N.C. DHHS and the N.C. Rehabilitation Association, which helps match patients with tools and provides training to use them. The event brought together more than 300 disability specialists, state government and local school system employees, families and vendors with high-tech assistance devices.
Justin Hill, 29, was awarded the Personal Achievement Award for his personal journey from the North Carolina Rehabilitation Association. Hill was born with cerebral palsy and as a student he used assistive technology lined up through these agencies to get through high school, college and eventually his graduate school program. He is now a social worker in a North Carolina public school.
“The tools you were able to give me through these services helped me realize my dreams. I could drive to school, get my master’s degree, drive to internships. It gave me the confidence to build relationships with my classmates and keep going,” said Hill. “This lets me help my students and show them that it doesn’t matter what your economic circumstances are or what your disability is, you can make it.”
Lowes Home Improvement employs people through the state vocational rehabilitation program at its millwork and distribution facilities in Davidson County. Working closely with the agencies, Lowes uses assistive technology to allow disabled workers to drive forklifts, assemble products and use computers for inventory and stocking. Brian Hughes and Tonya Dodgen accepted the Employer of the Year award on behalf of the company.
“It’s not about trying to meet a quota…. It’s about doing the right thing, and if you go into it with that attitude you can’t help but be successful,” said Hughes. “But the most rewarding thing for me is seeing those faces employed. All they are asking for is the opportunity. If we give them the opportunity I’m satisfied. Let’s get more qualified individuals trained and placed.”
Among the latest tech tools on the market are robotics. The BEAM and the Vegio systems are basically Facetime on wheels and allow students of all ages to participate in a classroom setting, even when their disabilities mean they can’t leave home or the hospital. Usually funded by a combination of private grants and some federal, state or county assistance, the robots line up with the rest of their class, go to gym, and give the students the chance to interact with other kids.
“Robotics is really the future of assistive technology,” said Tammy Kroger, Director of the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program. “This is also a way to do telemedicine, so doctors can go into the home. Or for people in the workplace, they can be working remotely and be readily available.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. However, the group here is focused not just on the employees, but on helping employers make accommodations and provide resources to help them. Formation of public and private partnerships across the state are getting more disabled North Carolinians into the workplace and keeping them there.
“Offer them a chance,” said Richard Michaels, a business relations representative for N.C. DHHS. “It really is the employers in our areas that come aboard with us and make the difference. They give them a chance.”