Blind World Magazine

Assistive tools at discounted prices.

September 08, 2005.
The Business Monthly, Maryland.

Curb ramps, Braille signs, specially outfitted restroom stalls and wheelchair ramps are just a few of the changes the Americans with Disabilities Act brought to the public landscape. In the end they amount to little more than a few simple modifications, but they've made a huge difference in facilitating access and helping people in wheelchairs, the blind and those with limited mobility achieve more independence.

A more focused transformation has been missing from the workplace, in part because many company owners are still in the dark about assistive technology. Susan Garber, executive director of At:Last Inc., which works primarily with disabled students and seniors, wants to help change things by offering the Columbia nonprofit organization's expertise to Maryland companies and individuals interested in opening up more offices and more jobs to disabled workers.

Founded in 1998, At:Last - the name stands for Assistive Technology: Loans, Acquisitions, Services and Training - was designed to offer assistive tools at discounted prices. Garber, a former special education teacher, recognized the need while serving as program director for assistive technology training at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Technology in Education.

"I was frustrated because - children weren't getting what they needed despite the training they received," Garber said. "Price always turned out to be the number one deterrent." So, she set out to identify the technology most needed throughout Maryland's school systems and lower the cost by consolidating purchases into bulk orders.

"When we first started, the industry was wary of what we were doing," Garber recalled. "But we generated growth in sales for them, and now the manufacturers actually come to us to market their products." During its first year, At:Last's purchases totaled $225,000. They currently average $900,000 annually and have exceeded $1 million in the past. At:Last also recently helped set up a similar organization in Tennessee.

The Maryland Assistive Technology (MAT) Co-op, an At:Last program providing discounted purchasing and training opportunities, negotiates directly and conducts semi-annual bids with more than 50 manufacturers and vendors, then resells the items at a nominal increase. Discounts range from 3% to 35%, depending on the item.

"We now offer more than 10,000 different products," Garber said. Steady growth in both products and clients allowed Garber and her staff to move operations last May from a small office space in Savage into an office suite on Oakland Mills Road in Columbia.

Flexible Approach.

As a parent of a special needs child, Amanda Cheong attended free workshops at the Center for Technology in Education in the 1990s, where she met Garber. Cheong's background included 16 years of purchasing and ordering for Discovery Toys. When Garber approached her with the idea for At:Last, "the timing was right," Cheong said. The company she worked for was moving to Alabama, and Cheong transitioned to placing At:Last's orders from home.

Cheong's daughter communicates using some of the devices offered by the MAT Co-op. "I do know a little about some of the products we provide, and over the last five-and-a-half years I've picked up more as I go," Cheong said. With such a large inventory, though, it's nearly impossible for At:Last's six employees to keep up with all the new products that emerge. Still, the organization has found ways to keep its clients better informed.

"We've organized showcases and asked manufacturers to send representatives to talk about their product lines," Cheong explained. "Parents can attend and talk with vendors and even get personal information and advice."

"We also have a demonstration room and resource facility with some of our equipment on display," Garber added. "Anybody interested in seeing something we offer can call to schedule an appointment and look it over."

Assistive technology is a fairly broad term that includes solutions as simple as Velcro closures on shoes as well as high tech communication devices costing thousands of dollars. "Our mission is to make people aware that these things exist, and that generally there is more than one solution for any problem," said Garber.

At:Last's clients include Maryland's 24 school systems, 14 private schools, colleges, universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies in addition to teachers, therapists, parent groups and individuals. The Co-op helps them acquire educational software, communication devices, computer access, daily living aids, visual support software, sensory aids and therapeutic supplies.

"If somebody needs something we don't carry, we'll try to track down a distributor or deal directly with the manufacturer," Garber said. "We're not 100% effective, but we've been highly successful."

Crossover Appeal.

As Cheong sees it, there is bound to be follow-on demand from At:Last's contacts who will be leaving high school or higher learning institutions with hopes of entering the workforce. "They've been familiar with us, so our reach will probably keep on spreading," she said.

"We're very interested in expanding into the business world," Garber affirmed. "It's an untapped market we haven't reached yet," one that would allow At:Last to add consulting services to its repertoire of acquisitions and training. Most businesses, she observed, don't realize that assistive technology doesn't have to be an expensive solution. "It opens them up to a broader workforce to recruit from, often with just some very minor adaptations."

At:Last is already exploring one area of interest to the business community. "We've been asked to research accessible information technology, the stuff that you find in everyone's office," said Garber. "We've been looking into copiers with controls on the front panels and non-digital readouts. Fax machines will probably represent the next area of expansion for us."

>From a consumer standpoint, individuals are primarily interested in assistive equipment to set up home-based businesses, which include modified keyboards and voice software that reads documents out loud, Garber said. Of course, the increased scope will translate into a need for more staff.

"Our ultimate dream is to find enough volunteers to take us on the road," Garber said. She envisions one or two events each month in which volunteers give presentations at chamber of commerce meetings and other venues to help make the business community aware of what it can accomplish, both for itself and for qualified workers with disabilities, with little more than a few simple modifications.

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