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Making Our Way: There are many factors to consider when buying assistive devices

Tuesday, December 21, 1999

By Patti Murphy

Technology can be a blessing when you have a disability, but the process of finding the most helpful devices can overwhelm you. There is so much advice and so many products.

    For more information

ABLEDATA at (800) 227-0216 or

Pennsylvania Initiative on Assistive Technology at (800) 204-7428.

The Three Rivers Center for Independent Living offers information on equipment and funding sources. Its Into New Hands program redistributes durable medical equipment to uninsured folks. For information, call (412) 371-7700.

Interdisciplinary Society for the Advancement of Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology (RESNA) at (703) 524-6686.


And then there's the cost. Expect to spend thousands of dollars for a good piece of high-tech equipment. Investigate third-party payers. Often, rehab specialists say, consumers bypass professional help and settle for inadequate equipment recommended by a friend or salesman. As assistive devices weave their way into the mainstream (consider, for example, the varieties of mouses available at computer stores), folks with disabilities may not feel compelled to seek help. Or they may not know that professionals can order, demonstrate and tailor equipment for them.

"A lot of times people try to muddle through on their own," said Lynne Rizzo, an occupational therapist and assistive technology practitioner at HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital. "In some cases, people may not want to face the need to utilize the equipment. In other cases, it may be just that they're not well-informed. It is a time-consuming process."

Here's how to get help:

Consult experts. These include disability advocates, other consumers and dealers as well as licensed health care professionals. Assistive technology is a interdisciplinary field of occupational and physical therapists, rehab engineers, speech pathologists and physicians. Credentials are voluntary. Practitioners may be certified by the Interdisciplinary Society for the Advancement of Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology, manufacturers and dealers by The National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers.

It makes sense to be evaluated by practitioners if you're in the market for a wheelchair, augmentative communication device, adaptive computer equipment, an environmental control unit to help you operate lights, doors, telephones and entertainment centers at home or a modified workstation.

You'll probably discuss your medical history, living arrangement, interests, mode of transportation, likes and dislikes about devices you've used and how you plan to use new ones with practitioners who'll assess your physical, sensory and cognitive abilities. A physician may address issues pertinent to your medical condition.

An evaluation can be a series of hits and misses. Assertiveness may be the consumer's best tool.

"We try not to be intimidating, but we can be and they need to try to be participatory," said Dr. Michael Boninger, a physiatrist and executive director of UPMC's Center for Assistive Technology.

Be a wary shopper. The multimillion dollar assistive technology business has exploded in the past 20 years. The federally funded ABLEDATA project, an information clearinghouse for the industry, says it has more than 22,000 items in its online database.

Try products before you buy them, especially complicated devices. Try more than one brand. Dealers bring items to evaluations so you can test them. It's best to practice with equipment at home, work, or wherever you plan to use it. Some dealers loan equipment. The Pennsylvania Initiative on Assistive Technology at Temple University in Philadelphia runs a lending library.

Practitioners usually have catalogs handy, and they may put you in touch with consumers who will discuss their experiences with evaluations and products.

But remember that disabilities present themselves differently. Don't assume that what works for one person will work for you just because you have the same condition.

Think of your health, safety and comfort. If you have a progressive condition, will you be able to operate your current equipment six months from now? Can your wheelchair support the best augmentative communication device for you? If you use borrowed or recycled equipment, can you get an original owner's manual?

Know the payment options. Chances are you'll need more than one. Medicaid, Medicare and private insurers rarely cover all evaluation, training and equipment costs.

Coverage is likely to be better for wheelchairs than communication or computer equipment. Ask about coverage for repairs.

Charities, foundations and disability-specific groups sometimes fund equipment. The state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation pays for work-related equipment.

Boninger said to ask for a discount on equipment you buy yourself.

Patti Murphy writes a monthly column on disabilities. You can e-mail her at

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