Background, Mission, Goals, and Current Status
A critical shortage of professionals who are qualified to provide specialized computer skills training to blind and visually impaired people significantly effects their viability in today's society. Hardly a business or work environment exists in this country that does not utilize the enormous power of microcomputer technology. Since most jobs held by people with visual impairments today require them to use computer-based tools, inadequate and untimely training on both computers and assistive technology (AT), contribute to the persistence of social and employment inequities. These inequities, so serious in scope that visually impaired people face an unemployment rate 15 times higher than the general population, are exacerbated by long waiting lists for technology training, truncated training regimens, and continued dependence on an already strained service delivery system.
In 1999 and 2000, the American Foundation for the Blind conducted a nationwide survey of State and private agencies and held several focus groups with consumers and professionals to better understand the nature of the reported shortage of assistive technology specialists. A number of professional conferences were also held. The results of these efforts are summarized in a technical brief, "Wired to Work," available on the AFB web site at http://www.afb.org/info_document_view.asp?documentid=1508
At the 2001 Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute (JLTLI), the Employment Work Group developed an action plan to increase the number of
qualified assistive technology (AT) specialists in the United States. The Work Group determined that an effective action plan to alleviate the shortage should include developing consensus about consumer training curriculum elements, AT trainer competencies, train-the-trainer curricula, and methodologies for evaluating AT trainer competencies. It recommended the formation of a national task force to continue the work.
Consisting of vision rehabilitation and education professionals, as well as consumers, the task force assembled in March, 2001. The Task Force
completed its work in 2002. Because the field appeared to have made great strides in developing consumer curricula, the Task Force chose to focus its attention on AT competencies.
Using the information gathered from the State and private agency surveys, consumer and professional focus groups, and various conferences, the Task Force is charged with providing to the vision rehabilitation field a concise set of recommendations for:
- Basic Assistive technology specialist competencies
- Professional standards and competencies for assistive technology specialists
- Evaluation methodologies for measuring assistive technology specialist competencies
- Recommended methods by which assistive technology specialists can acquire needed competencies
A concise set of recommendations prepared for dissemination to the vision rehabilitation field as follows:
Outcome 1: Achievement of consensus about basic competencies for assistive technology specialists across the nation
- List of Basic and Professional Assistive technology specialist competencies
- Concise train-the-trainer curricula to instruct assistive technology specialist competencies
Outcome 2: Adoption of methodologies to evaluate assistive technology specialist competencies
- Outline and description of evaluation methodologies for measuring assistive technology specialist competencies
Outcome 3: Establishment of Protocols and Methods by which assistive technology trainers can obtain instruction in needed competencies
- Comprehensive list of vendor training offerings and credentials
- Regional training centers
- Local, in-person and Distance Learning assistive technology specialist training courses
It is hoped that service-providers, product vendors, purchasers of service, employers of AT specialists, and consumers will embrace the recommendations that the task force will provide, leading to increased uniformity in the quality of training consumers receive from AT trainers around the country. Similarly, the recommendations for AT trainer competencies and methods by which AT trainers receive professional training should, if adopted, lead to more consistency in the competencies they possess and make it easier to acquire and maintain them. Finally, the recommended competencies and measurement protocols will guide the development of standards for hiring AT trainers and continual evaluation of their performance.
The Task Force consisted of vision rehabilitation, technology, employment, and education professionals, as well as consumer group representatives. A steering committee, consisting of AFB National Employment and Technology program members, guided its efforts. Committees composed of individuals with appropriate interests and backgrounds worked on the Goal areas outlined above.
The Task Force met or made presentations at the following conferences: "2001: A Technology Odyssey" (Pittsburgh, August, 2001); "Closing the Gap" (Minneapolis, November, 2001); "Assistive Technology Industry Association [ATIA] (Orlando, January, 2002 and 2003); and "the conference at California State University at Northridge [CSUN] (Los Angeles, March, 2002 and 2003). Presentations were also made before various consumer organizations. Articles were published in consumer magazines, various listservs, and in professional journals. Finally, updates were provided to the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB in 2002 and 2003).
The Task Force completed its assignment in 2002. It developed definitions of terms, lists of competencies, and measurement methodologies covering assessment, training, hardware and software (installation, configuration, and customization), and professional competencies.
In 2003, the American Foundation for the Blind contracted with the University of Washington to develop competency-assessment modules. When ready, the modules will enable a skilled observer (e.g., an AT supervisor) to determine if an assistive technology specialist possesses competencies in three critical competency areas:
- Hardware and software (installation, configuration, and customization)
Prototypes of the modules were created in 2003 and are currently undergoing evaluation.
The assistive technology field remains divided regarding the issue of AT certification. Whereas the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) in the United Kingdom has developed a certification scheme (see http://www.rnib.org.uk/xpedio/groups/public/documents/publicwebsite/public_rnib003064.hcsp for a recent update), assistive technology specialists in the U.S. continue to ask:
- Who will be the certifying body?
- Will the certification process be fair to assistive technology specialists with visual impairments?
- Will employers, already struggling to find qualified AT specialists, agree to hire only certified AT specialists?
- Is it possible to construct a valid examination?
- How will current and future AT specialists adequately prepare for the certification examination?
These questions are presently under study by American Foundation for the Blind.
The Task Force thanks Dr. James Allan and the Texas School for the Blind for hosting and maintaining these pages.