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Dustin Wright was looking for a way to fill the gap between people with disabilities and enabling technology to improve their lives.
The forty-one year old native of West Lafayette, Indiana, and self-proclaimed Boilermakers fan (sorry Hoosiers) went from typical college student looking for a part-time job to a pioneer leveraging enabling technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Like most college students, Wright needed a part-time job while attending Purdue University. Answering a help-wanted ad for a caregiver at a neighborhood group home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, he landed the job and quickly fell in love with supporting people to reach their maximum potential and personal goals.
Over the next few years, Wright would end up running the Medicaid provider’s agency group home and waiver services and cutting his teeth on many of the challenges that are endemic in Medicaid waiver disability services.
Like so many families and organizations who care for disabled loved ones will experience, finding and keeping good caregivers is a difficult task that never seems to end. Even for families with self-care plans and who are up to date on the latest enabling and assistive technology.
The Medicaid disability service system wasn’t any different. After several years of managing the revolving door of caregivers, Wright was certain there was a better way.
A new way to care
Wright found a promising new enabling assistive technology from a startup called Rest Assured. The technology appeared to increase independence for the people he was supporting in the group home, but also addressed several of the challenges he faced as the director of the agency supporting them.
Rest Assured, seeing the immediate potential in Wright’s expertise and vision, hired him in 2006 as their executive director, where he would stay on until 2018. “The company was pioneering a new form of support for people that needed cognitive support, which also wanted to maximize independence,” Wright said.
“We installed various sensors, two-way audio/video devices, and sometimes cameras in common areas of the home, which linked the person in their home to an off-site caregiver that Rest Assured employed.” This enabling technology was an innovative alternative to traditional in-home caregivers.
A long road ahead
As a startup launched just ahead of the Housing Crisis, the crashing economy was the least of Rest Assured’s worries. From 2006 to 2016, Wright and his team had four priorities.
- Create new funding options with each State’s Medicaid Waiver program
- Convince stakeholders that tech was not “big brother” when done correctly
- Create best practices for a new form of support with no benchmark available
- Collaborate with competitors to shift the culture of an industry that is very slow to change
A daunting list for any startup to tackle in their home state. Though if Rest Assured wanted to stay a viable business, they would have to address these priorities in each state across the country.
Knocking over one barrier after the next, overcoming many of these barriers, Wright realized the “technology movement we started wasn’t sustainable if only tech companies with a vested interest in this were advocating for these changes.” He needed advocates from every industry that touched the people he cared for.
The defining moment
Reflecting back on his career, Wright said the Rest Assured project “shaped my fundamental belief that technology has the capability to enable amazing possibilities for people with all abilities.”
The use of technologies to support people with disabilities has the potential to enable possibilities we otherwise thought were impossible. […] We need to better learn how to weigh the dignity of risk with opportunities for self-fulfillment.
He knew the technology industry would get there on its own, but not without “a catalyst to “stir the pot” in an unbiased way so that the tech movement would take on a self-sustaining momentum.”
“The [technology] industry needed a neutral voice that acted as the “go to” resource,” said Wright. “An entity with the knowledge and experience to advocate for the appropriate use of technology.”
The industry, the caregivers, and especially the patients, needed a champion to take the reins. Nervous about stepping into the role of a disruptor, he wasn’t sure he “had the knowledge and experience to pull it off,” said Wright, “but it felt right.”
Fortunately, Wright’s long career in working with people with disabilities and technology to improve their lives, positioned him as an innovator in the industry.
In 2018, he took the leap and formed Disability Cocoon (DC) to become a national enabling technology catalyst organization.
By the bootstraps
Wright wasn’t simply trying to get a few people to sign up for a newsletter, he was ambitiously changing the way technology is woven into the lives of people with disabilities and those dedicated to caring for them.
He focused his efforts on building a strong foundation for DC that self-funded almost immediately. He knew the ingredients required to start DC off on the right foot.
Wright walked me through the three steps he took to make Disability Cocoon a viable and sustainable success.
- Build an advisory committee. “I knew a large group of experts in tech for people with disabilities around the United States. I knew DC would have a much bigger impact if I could leverage the knowledge of all these people instead of just relying on my own.”
- Design a low to no capital required revenue model. To generate revenue from day one, Wright hosted his first conference. This enabled him to “presell registration, exhibitor space, and sponsorships and then pay for expenses. It was a way to make sure there were no outside “investor” influences.”
- Deliver the right content, the right way. Make sure the content is
- Accessible (Wright said this is a challenge they are actively working to solve)
- Approachable and not presented in a super techy way
- Fun and different.
With Disability Cocoon as the nucleus of this initiative, Wright formed a vast network of strategic partnerships. By collaborating with technology and service providers across a range of verticals, DC is well-positioned to create new enabling technologies that would deploy quickly.
A singular focus
Everything about the Disability Cocoon site points to one goal: To make enabling technology easy. Disabled or not, how many times have each of us purchased what we thought was the appropriate technology to fix our problem, only to find out we needed a Ph.D. to turn it on? Or even worse, attempted to deploy it across our organization before learning it’s completely wrong?
Our goal is to be a hub for tech that enables person centered outcomes for people with all levels of ability.
Evident by the graphic below, the journey taken by an individual or organization through the DC site is intelligently mapped out to make the user’s experience as smooth as possible while teaching them everything about the enabling technology that is right for them, or the people they care for.
3 steps to make enabling technology easy
Step 1 – Discover
Through weekly 30-minute demos (called Tech:Huddles) via Facebook Live and Zoom, a new assistive or enabling technology is reviewed by one of the experts on the team.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for the live demos to discover new technology. Everything that is reviewed is stored in the archives – Past Tech:Huddles, newsletters, and ideas sent from one of their social media accounts.
Step 2 – Learn
Down with conferences! Long live Tech:Festivals! Regional tech festivals with cutting edge educational sessions, demos, tech labs, food trucks, games, and more. All focused on assistive technology. If you can’t attend one of the Tech:Festivals in person, Disability Cocoon made it possible to attend virtually.
Step 3 – Implement
This is where the rubber meets the road, and where Wright and his team are making strides past any would-be competitors.
Disability Cocoon offers three ways to support its users by identifying enabling technology solutions.
- Live chat with one of their experts
- A ‘Consult and Speak’ supporting agencies, organizations, and state entities
- A locator for your State’s Assistive Technology Act Technical Assistance and Training Center (no affiliation with Disability Cocoon)
In parallel and currently in development, the Nexus platform is a web based solution that aims to remove the complexities associated with enabling technology implementation.
A rising tide floats all ships
Wright was excited to share the news about the latest initiative he is launching in concert with SimplyHome. A provider of innovative and affordable technology solutions, since 2003, committed to empowering caregivers, organizations, and policymakers with enabling technology.
Aptly named Shift, the pair established an Enabling Technology Credentialing Program for direct support professionals (caregivers), a certification for disability service professionals, and Tech First service provider accreditation.
“Our goal is to standardize this knowledge under Disability Cocoon as an accrediting entity,” Wright said. “We want to give people the knowledge, resources, social connections, and confidence to help people use tech the right way to enable amazing possibilities.”
“The biggest barrier to wider adoption of tech is lack of knowledge on how to safely incorporate it into someone’s day-to-day life and support plan.”
Emerging tech and the gaps to fill
I asked Wright which enabling technology was the most popular today. “Wow, that’s a hard question. I’m seeing a huge push for various forms of ‘remote patient monitoring‘ type solutions.
“Many state Medicaid Waiver programs are paying for these as an alternative to costly on-site caregivers (when appropriate AND preferred by the person served).”
While some technologies are flying off the shelves, driven oftentimes by patient demand, there are seriously underserved populations in desperate need of innovation in the way of assistive technology.
Wright was referring to enabling technology for people with mental health issues and intellectual disabilities. “There just isn’t much out there yet to address emotional, behavioral, mental health.” Noted Wright.
“We need more options like Mightier, that give biofeedback or some other form of feedback to help us self-regulate our emotions and mental health.”
Looking into the future
Wright predicts that “machine learning and AI will be a big part of whatever the blockbuster device/system/solution is for 2025. I wish I could say self-driving cars, but I get the sense we are still a little further out there.”
“The use of technologies to support people with disabilities has the potential to enable possibilities we otherwise thought were impossible. We are all programmed to do everything in our power to protect people that are sometimes perceived as vulnerable.”
Wright continued that “There has to be a cultural shift, a change in how we define support before we all start maximizing opportunities. We need to better learn how to weigh the dignity of risk with opportunities for self-fulfillment.”
A global pandemic
It goes without saying that we are experiencing a health crisis right now with the deadly spread of COVID-19, also called the Coronavirus. Wanting to understand how Wright and Disability Cocoon were affected by this, he invited me to join a Zoom call to address this very situation.
Joined by a hand-selected team of enabling technology professionals, Wright wasted no time and jumped into the loose agenda.
The goal was simple. Design a solution to address one of the critical needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic. This would be done using the technology represented by the people on the call.
After introductions and some ideas tossed around, Wright declared this wouldn’t be an easy task, but it was critical. Everyone was in agreement, the talent and technology were there, but nothing could be done until they collectively answered a few critical questions, starting with: What problem is the most important to solve right now?
Wright and this team have a short runway to address any number of life-threatening issues the country is faced with today. I’m looking forward to watching this evolve.
While we all face different challenges with our disabilities or the disabilities of those we care for, one thing is for certain, the enabling technology industry is ripe for disruption.
That doesn’t mean we should wait around for the next wheelchair accessible flying car. Each of us has the capacity to improve our lives or the lives of those we care for, with enabling technology.
Wright reminds us to get over the self-inflicted idea that we “aren’t ‘tech-savvy’ enough to enable possibilities through tech.” And to “Follow these 5 steps to become a tech champ:
- Find a learning resource like Disability Cocoon
- Explore and learn
- Choose one desired outcome you want to address
- Find a solution and implement
- Share your story
I told my own story of enabling technology in my life.
What’s your story? Tell me in the comments below.