EmpowerTech – A Door To The World For People With Disabilities

When I walked in Wednesday afternoon, they immediately wanted to help me.

HIV is not a death sentence.

Aspergers can be managed.

Being gay is not a choice.

Using the wonders of modern assistive technology, this organization could help me bridge the barriers of normal social interaction and help me achieve a better quality of life, including the ability to communicate, work and participate in recreation.

After much shouting and waving of arms on my part, I finally convinced the staff that while indeed they could help me achieve a semblance of normality, my mission this day was to tell their story to the world.

"Luke Carey Ford," one woman muses, "were you born Jewish?"

"Dress like you’re going to Cathy Seipp’s funeral," a friend advises so before leaving I put on some nice daks, my cleanest tzitzit and the long-sleeved striped beige shirt I wear thrice-a-week to Alexander Technique.

I was just out of two intense hours of therapy where I discovered that I’ve been depressed all my life and fending off my sunken state with yoga, meaningless sex and Orthodox Judaism.

But enough about me, let me tell you about how EmpowerTech offers a broad array of programs that bring modern technology into the lives of people with disabilities.

Jesus knows I’d be pushing a shopping cart down Santa Monica Blvd if it weren’t for the wonders of the personal computer.

Before I stop talking about myself, I’d just like to say that I found EmpowerTech to be just the kind of place where a personality such as mine can bloom.

I talk to Joan Anderson, EmpowerTech‘s executive director. "We have open access on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 6pm. We open up the computer lab to anyone with a disability. They can either come in and check out what we do. They can check out the technology. If they have homework or just want to email. We’re doing a training session on how to blog."

Joan has been on the job for two months. She comes from a background in corporate work. Then after 9/11, she went into non-profits, starting with a small jazz radio station back East.

Joan: "Assistive technology was completely new to me. I don’t have any form of disability."

EmpowerTech was started in 1986 by Mary Ann Glicksman who had a son who had cerebral palsy. She kept encountering roadblocks with the technology. She knew it was out there. With a group of families, she started a computer access center. It blossomed from there.

Every day, EmpowerTech trains students (on Microsoft Office Suite) with all forms of disabilities ranging from autism to blindness, low vision, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, quadriplegics, to people who’ve lost the use of their arms or fingers. After completing the course, the students walking away with a certificate that can help them find work (though many forms of disability are just too much for them to hold down a job).

"We have kids here who are high-functioning autistic and their Excel spreadsheets blow mine away," says Joan. "Their powerpoint presentations are amazing. But they are very comfortable in our situation. There are a few who do work, but it is as stockboys instead of database management which these kids can definitely do.

"We have a fabulous program for the blind and low-vision. There’s assistive technology out there with screenreaders and large print and that kind of stuff. We have Tom here who  is completely blind and Bruce who is partially blind. They teach Microsoft Office, email, the whole suite.

"We go into schools all over LA County. We do assessments for students who need help learning. It can be anything from how they hold their pencils or they need a different environment, i.e., computers. We’re in six immersion schools now in Santa Monica, meaning schools with ‘normal’ kids and kids who need help learning. We’re in there three days a week and go through 350 children a year who we teach assistive technology to."

"There’s nothing like helping a stroke survivor send and receive their first email to their kids back East.

"We also have the Head Mouse. If you’re a quadraplegic and you can’t use your hands, it’s a little dot you put on your forehead and there’s a camera on top of the computer screen and just a movement of the head moves the cursor up and down. We have a couple of kids who come in and use that on Wednesday."

I tried it out and found my neck became exhausted in less than 60 seconds. Before I quit, however, I typed out the words "No way."

Joan used to be the executive director for the American Heart Association and was the chief development officer for another non-profit.  "I wanted to get away from funding for research," says Joan. "It’s very difficult. it’s not tangible. I swore I would never go back.

"Let’s say I’m looking for volunteers or board members or sponsorship, and if somebody is on the fence, I can bring them in here and they can see where their money is going."

Luke: "What does your typical work day consist of?"

Joan: "Everything you can possibly imagine. The nice thing about EmpowerTech is that the program directors know what they’re doing. I don’t need to be involved. I’m not a micromanager.

"You must meet my staff. I can’t brag about them enough because what they do is very difficult. It’s not teaching or training you or I… With their body language and their tone of voice, what they get these kids to accomplish is just amazing. You wish that every school had teachers like my teachers.

"Many many calls for corporate sponsorship, in kind media partnerships, all the marketing and PR is done by me with the help of a couple of volunteers. All the fundraising is done by a development department, which is myself and a grant writer. We get out monthly between ten to twenty grant requests. I go on two meetings a day. Particularly right now, you have to be out there.

"We just started a blog. Tom is blogging.

"We’re part of an AT (Assistive Technology) network. There are about 40 of us, but we were the first assistive technology lab. In the network, we all communicate about what’s out there and what’s coming down the pike. What is the government going to be doing with the tech act. We do have a fee-for-service. Most of our students come from either Westside Regional Center or the Department of Rehab. Due to government cutbacks, they’re also cutting back.

"It makes my job that much more intense. We’re getting creative. I’m used to doing the six figure asks and creating strategic partnerships. I now ask the corporate VPs, how can we help you? What do you need? And vice versa. We’re breaking down some doors but it is very tough."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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