Tina Ding
Assistive technology on display at IPAT's Bismarck office. (Tina Ding)

(Tina Ding)

IPAT employees Peggy Shireley (right) and Tyler Merkel (left). (Tina Ding)

Zipping up a jacket with one hand, reading a book with macular degeneration or using a computer without the use of hands may seem impossible. Perhaps there is an issue of memory loss and phoning a loved one is out of reach. We know it can be done, but there are occasionally innumerable obstacles to overcome all at once. Showering, dressing, preparing meals, communication, employment; the list of hurdles can grow quickly. Technology can be used to function at a higher level, to either support special needs or to make life a little less difficult.

For some, difficulties began at birth; for others, a life occurrence such as sickness or an accident changed everything. But whether the issue stems from a condition, a single accident or is simply due to the process of aging, we seek solutions for problems related to self-care, safety, communication, technology and more.

"We see people who look to do things differently as their life circumstances change," says IPAT Senior AT Consultant Peggy Shireley. "One of our goals is to support needs by scaffolding solutions in order to keep these individuals home longer as well as to keep them safe."

Shireley works with AT (Assistive Technology) Consultant Tyler Merkel to support individuals seeking their expertise. For some consumers, a formal consultation is warranted while others may simply walk into their demonstration room wondering about AT.

"As we visit with individuals, we pay close attention to those daily activities that have become difficult to manage," Merkel said. "We encourage exploration of our various pieces of assistive technology while we chit-chat about functionality."

Shireley said that, as a direct result of federal legislation, students with special needs were accepted into neighborhood schools under the laws of inclusion. Despite having the right to an education, students with disabilities faced obstacles while at school. This was when a non-profit organization, the North Dakota Interagency Program for Assistive Technology (NDIPAT), opened their doors in 1993. It is imperative that all students have access to the assistive technology they need to be successful while at school, remain at home, maintain employment, or engage in community service activities.

"Not all of our consumers are students," Shireley said. "Many individuals who walk in are seeking supports for either personal need or for that of a loved one due to the aging process. Early on, we see language or mobility needs; later there may be cognitive loss. Vision and hearing loss or change become areas of concern as well."

Walking through a demonstration center and visiting with AT consultants can be life changing. Merkel recently supported an individual with cochlear implants. Since she needs to remove the exterior components during sleep, she has complete hearing loss through the night. To enable her to hear an alarm, he provided a device for her that caused a light to turn on and off and a vibration device to indicate when to wake up.

Complex situations usually require an assessment in order to discover as much as possible in order to fully determine all aspects of need. Consultants stay ahead of the learning curve in the area of technology, understanding how quickly things change and how innumerable the options are to support those who need it.

"It's our job to stay up to par with the world of technology," Merkel said. "We cover a full spectrum of ages and disabilities, from autism and work-related accidents to modifications at work or dyslexia in college. And we hear feedback very quickly on how these assistive technology supports will make huge differences in their lives."

Arthritic hands turning lids to jars or bottles of water can be debilitating; however, there are gadgets to help with that. Vision loss can discourage reading for leisure or necessity; there are tech devices to support that. "The oldest population tends to wait too long," Shireley said. "They don't want to ask for help. They fear 'selling the farm' to pay for adaptive or assistive devices. However, the component of fear can be alleviated by taking a look at our demonstration room. We can review their funding needs to determine ways to make this affordable or allow opportunities to rent materials so they might try out a variety of devices before making a determination."

For those unable to visit either the Bismarck or Fargo centers, virtual tours are available through the human service center as well as multiple resource options at www.ndipat.org.

"We're all about getting people back to work, keeping them safe while at home and keeping their dignity and respect," Merkel said. "Talk to us about what the barrier is, what it is you hope to do, and we'll help you get there."

Tina Ding is a teacher, freelance writer and grad school student with plenty of time for her husband and three children. She also loves photography, scrapbooking, reading and traveling.