On November 16, 2023, Age Friendly Seattle hosted its final 2023 Civic Coffee, planned in collaboration with and held at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library. The panel discussion explored practical tools and solutions to enhance accessibility and quality of life. Panelists included Maria Kelley, OTR/L, ATP, a Senior Assistive Technology Specialist with the Washington Assistive Technology Act Program; Lynne St. Pierre, a service provider for the Independent Living Program Department Services for the Blind; and Jeannie Jacobs, a volunteer with Seattle Public Library’s Library Equal Access Program (LEAP), who is visually impaired and able to offer her experience and insight.
The Washington Assistive Technology Act Program (WATAP) is a federally-funded program housed at the University of Washington that provides resources and services to people who face challenges related to disabilities and aging. They offer several services—like their borrowing program and device demonstrations—to support individuals who seek support from assistive technology.
The Library Equal Access Program (LEAP) coordinates accessible library programs, services, and assistive resources to serve people with disabilities, visual, hearing, and mobility impairments to create an accessible environment for them. The Central Library branch has a lab with a braille display and a CCTV magnifier—a stand-mounted or handheld video camera to project a magnified image onto a video monitor, a television screen, or a computer monitor—with other assistive technology resources for library patrons. As a volunteer, Jeanne supports the program by setting up Victor Readers (handheld media players) for library patrons and connecting library patrons to receive information regarding programs and services from the Library Equal Access Program.
The Independent Living Program (Washington State Department of Services for the Blind) supports at no cost adults aged 24 and older who have a vision impairment that impacts their daily lives. The providers empower clients by assisting them with in-home support and through the program participants gain the confidence and skills to maintain or regain their independence.
WATAP supports access to assistive technology by offering a free demonstration program that allows individuals to meet with an assistive technology specialist to gain hands-on guidance on devices. Individuals can also borrow equipment for a three-week trial as a short-term accommodation or as an opportunity to decide if a certain device suits their needs before making a financial commitment. Maria said these programs allow individuals interested in purchasing assistive technology an opportunity to test devices and see if they support their needs to make an informed decision.
Maria also shared that there are various kinds of assistive technology, all dependent on individuals’ needs and the type of technology:
- Low tech: simple and low learning curve technology that is easy to use for most.
- Moderate tech: more complex electronic components and more maintenance involved to use it.
- High tech: the most complex form of assistive technology that requires support for the individual to learn and use technology.
Jeannie said she learned about assistive technology as a volunteer at the library. One technology she finds very helpful is the library’s computers, which have JAWS (Job Access with Speech) screen readers that assist users who are blind or visually impaired. Also, there are a lot of applications that can be downloaded on smartphones to help individuals. She recommends the Be My Eyes application which aims to support blind or visually impaired users by assisting them with support like reading instructions or checking an expiration date. Users take a photo or request a video call where the volunteer assists the user by describing the information.
The Independent Living Program is rooted in providing personalized support for each client, developed through an individual assessment of the client’s greatest needs in their daily lives and their personal goals. When Lynne performs these assessments, she analyzes areas in the individual’s lives where accommodations can be made and devices that can support their independence. Counseling is another part of this program that supports individuals holistically.
Emily Billow, the Older Adults Program Manager at the Seattle Public Library and moderator of this discussion, said that assistive technology is not a one-size-fits-all solution—which is why programs like these are so important. Individuals gain access to assistive technology but also have support to get the devices that are tailored to their needs.
All three panelists emphasize the importance of educational opportunities that share resources and information with people who may not be aware of the tools that can assist them and increase their independence. Jeannie shared how she uses technology like her smartphone to aid her independence but to also to have fun—she downloads accessible games on her device.
The important takeaway from this discussion is that every individual’s needs are different—what may work for one person may not be the best or practical solution for another. Each of these programs offers assistance and guidance from professionals and personalized help.
Age Friendly Seattle thanks all panelists for the informative conversation on aging, technology, and accessibility.
Age Friendly Seattle Civic Coffees are scheduled every month (except December). Stay connected with Age Friendly Seattle to learn about upcoming Civic Coffees and other events in 2024. Visit seattle.gov/agefriendly/programs/events and bookmark Aging King County’s Age Friendly Live—Virtual Events webpage. Also, follow Age Friendly Seattle on Facebook and Twitter. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributor Fathima Garcia is an intern with Age Friendly Seattle. She is a recent Seattle Central College graduate with an associate degree in business administration. Starting this fall, she will study Human Resources Management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.