Lighting the Fire of Innovation
By Therese Willkomm, Ph.D.
Housed within the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, Assistive Technology in New Hampshire (ATinNH) has two major activity areas: (1) training, education, and outreach and (2) assistive technology services which include equipment demonstrations, loans, and refurbishing. Like many programs, the onset of COVID-19 forced those of us at ATinNH to adjust our usual delivery and training models to those that could meet the realities of the pandemic.
While the pandemic presented us with many challenges, it also led to great innovations in ATinNH’s ability to meet the assistive technology (AT) needs of individuals throughout the state. One exciting discovery that came out of the pandemic is the US Postal Service’s Click-N-Ship® program. Click-N-Ship® allows customers to order free boxes, print labels, and request package pickups online – all from the safety of their homes.
In March and April 2020, we received requests for face shields for American Sign Language interpreters, care providers for the elderly, and persons caring for those with disabilities. Our staff discovered that face shields could be made in under a minute for less than one dollar’s worth of materials. During those first few months of the pandemic, our team made and shipped over 280 face shields to people with immediate needs.
We also received many requests from teachers for hands-free cell phone holders, computer holders, and iPad holders for students with vision impairments and other disabilities.
As the director of ATinNH, my house became a maker-space with at least ten packages going out my door each day. I also emailed images of various AT options so that people could choose the best device to fit their needs. Not only was I able to show the variety of things that could be made, I also shared the instructions, materials lists, and tools necessary so people could make items on their own.
I made hundreds of devices in my kitchen and shipped them out to people within 24 hours of receiving the request. This new system, born out of necessity, now allows people with disabilities, their families, and their support teams to quickly review their options on-line, select what will work best for them, and have their AT delivered to their door in a matter of days.
When the University of New Hampshire (UNH) campus opened in the fall, work-study students assisted us in preparing and shipping AT materials and devices, complete with prepaid return labels. By providing these services via USPS, customers were able to eliminate travel to campus – and also discover how easy it is to borrow inventory via our website atinnh.at4all.com.
An unexpected boon for our creativity was a bumper crop of corrugated plastic election signs (over 2000) that arrived on campus after November’s elections. Thanks to beautiful weather, we set up outside workstations and fabricated hundreds of collapsible book holders, iPad holders, slant boards, and iPad cases. It was such a unique and innovative production that WGBH came to the UNH campus and filmed us as we fabricated various devices.
The pandemic has caused us to look at innovation in a whole new light, becoming more efficient and cost-effective by deploying technology. We’ve fabricated more devices than ever before, discovered new methods to minimize leftover scraps, and sped up our processes. We’ve even begun to offer virtual hands-on maker workshops where we ship materials to participants and offer online classes describing how to make specific devices.
Although it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to light this fire of innovation, what we’ve learned will benefit thousands of individuals for years to come. Never underestimate the power of passion and the human spirit in response to a challenge!