Technology and the environment: supportive resource or barrier for people with developmental disabilities?

Joy Hammel
Nursing Clinics of North America 2003, 38 (2): 331-49
Findings from needs assessments and abandonment studies point to issues with health care providers, particularly in their ability to listen to the needs of the consumer and important others regarding AT-EI. Professionals need to listen to what people are telling them or, in many cases, what they are not telling them. Actions and nonverbal messages can speak very loudly. Strategies to communicate and collaborate with consumers need to be developed. Regardless of ability to communicate or the severity of the impairments the person may be experiencing, it is important to withhold judgments that may underestimate a person's potential or desire to be in control of life decisions. AT-EI service have often seen people labeled with severe or profound intellectual disabilities challenge that diagnosis after accessing a communication or access system. Likewise, a person with a severe disability has the right to supportive resources and to the same level of respect, dignity, and quality of life as any other member of society. Using the technology and adapting the environment to provide opportunities for consumers to "voice" their wishes and control their lives can be an effective strategy to collaborate. When focusing on a rights-based philosophy, recognizing the difference between physical independence (e.g., physical and/or cognitive ability to do a task by oneself) and self-care management (e.g., access to and power to manage the supportive resources to live in the community regardless of level of physical ability) is important. We all rely on supports in our lives, whether it be tools or technology to help us do a job or another person, yet when we evaluate people with disabilities, the expectation is for people to function independently [23,24]. They even receive lower scores on functional assessments if they are using a piece of technology to do an activity. By shifting the focus to management of and access to resources versus level of physical dependence or burden, health care professionals can play a role in linking people to such resources as AT-EI and related services and strategies to support community living. Such a shift in focus also enables professionals to validate interdependence; that is, the give-take relationships that people have with each other to support each other [25]. The use of AT-EI by people with developmental disabilities often involves an interdependent relationship in which another person may help set up the environment or technology and, in turn, the consumer can then reciprocate and engage in an activity or a relationship [1]. Health care professionals also need to better understand and take into consideration the social context, its influence on consumers' use or nonuse of AT-EI, and the long-term influence on community living and participation decisions [1]. Nurses can involve important others in the process by listening to and considering their needs, and ensuring that they are informed about options, the benefits of using AT-EI for the consumer and themselves, and how to set up and troubleshoot the AT-EI. In cases where important others are not supportive, health care professionals may be in a position to link the consumer with other consumers and advocacy groups such as Centers for Independent Living or Self Advocates Becoming Empowered that may offer that support as well as membership in a collective community engaged in systems change. Health care professionals can serve as a system interface by linking people to information and resources to make informed decisions [26]. Resources on developmental disability and health, common issues that may occur, and life course planning help people identify functional issues and early signs of accelerated aging and proactively use the environment and technology to stay in living situations of choice. Few health care professionals are well prepared to provide services to people with developmental disabilities as they age; a great need exists for providers of such specialized services and for proactive later-life screenings that can identify issues early and make the most use of AT-EI strategies to address aging issues [26,28]. At any given point in time in the life of people with developmental disabilities, many different professionals and systems may be involved in decisions that could include AT-EI. Medical, educational, vocational, independent living, and case management systems may all be working with the person; however, there is often limited or no communication between them, particularly as the person ages or transitions between settings. Health care professionals, even when they are working with an individual on a limited basis, can and should take on active roles in linking consumers and important others with other systems and should ensure that information about their AT-EI needs is transferred accurately between systems. Most likely, nurses may be in a role to refer a person to specialized services, whether they may be medical, rehabilitative, AT-EI-specific, or disability advocacy groups that can help support the person as they face barriers or seek out AT. Nurses may also be in a role to pass on important information about the person's health and medical status that can help to better inform AT-EI decisions to ensure the AT meets the person's needs across contexts. As an interface, nurses may assume a role as a supporting advocate for accessing resources, not as a gatekeeper who makes decisions for people. This includes referring individuals with developmental disabilities to people and groups that know how to get AT-EI, how to fund it, and how to troubleshoot it, and linking them to other people with disabilities who are sharing strategies in person and on-line. It also includes focusing beyond basic self-care and considers AT-EI strategies that enable a person to participate in high meaning activities and roles in the home and the community. Participation in activities identified as highly meaningful and important to the person, such as participating in a religious community, networking with other people on-line, gardening, or being a member of a community group, to name a few, can positively contribute to health, wellness, and quality of life; the challenge is to create and adapt the environment (social, physical, and societal) to support participation choices and control.

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