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Public Policy

The goal of the Disability Policy Collaboration is to impact national public policy for people with mental retardation, cerebral palsy and related disabilities and their families.

May 14, 2009

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2007 Issue Fact Sheets

Assistive Technology Act Fact Sheet

The Arc and UCP Disability Policy Collaboration Masthead

ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY ACT

Background

In 1988, Congress passed the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, later referred to as the "Tech Act." The Tech Act was reauthorized in 1994 and again in 1998. In 1998, the Act was renamed the Assistive Technology Act. Today federal funding for the Act supports four major programs: 1) State Grant Programs, also known as Title I programs; 2) Alternative Financing Programs, often referred to as Title III programs; 3) Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology programs; and 4) national Technical Assistance programs. In just 15 years, the network for expanding access to assistive technology has become robust and effective. The Tech Act programs have been a major force in assisting people with disabilities and older Americans to live more productively and independently in their homes and communities and to participate fully in schools and workplaces throughout the U.S.

State Tech Act Grant Programs
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and four territories have state grant projects. These projects conduct activities such as public awareness and outreach, information and referral, technical assistance and training to consumers, providers and policy makers, and systematic advocacy and collaboration designed to increase access to assistive and information technologies. The state Tech Act programs also use federal monies to leverage non-federal contributions that help the states further expand programs that provide assistive technology devices and services. Specific examples of the work performed by Title I programs include:

  • Development and operation of equipment recycling programs;
  • Creation of short-term assistive technology equipment loan programs that allow consumers to try out equipment prior to purchase, thereby ensuring better buying decisions;
  • Development and implementation of policies designed to ensure access to assistive technology in the One-Stop Employment Centers as established by the Workforce Investment Act;
  • Support for cash loan programs that help people with disabilities purchase assistive technology devices; and
  • Provision of technical assistance to policymakers for the development of state policies and practices that ensure the availability of assistive technology devices as well as the accessibility of state information technology services.

Alternative Financing Programs
Lack of available funding is often cited as the greatest barrier for people with disabilities in their quest for acquiring assistive technology. To help address this problem, the federal government has provided funding in recent years for the start-up of Alternative Financing Programs. These programs are designed to provide cash loans to people with disabilities and older Americans so they can buy the assistive technology devices and services they need. The use of Alternative Financing Programs is expanding.

The existing loan programs employ four basic funding models: (1) the revolving loan, in which monies used to repay old loans are recycled to finance new ones; (2) the guaranteed loan, where non-traditional borrowers are able to obtain loans because the Alternative Financing Programs guarantees to repay them if the borrowers do not; (3) the interest buy-down loan, where the Alternative Financing Program uses its funds to buy-down the interest rate to a level which is more affordable; and (4) the traditional loan, where loans are made available to borrowers on terms and conditions that would be more typically available from regular lending institutions, except that the Alternative Financing Programs are more flexible about collateral requirements, loan amounts and terms of repayment. In 2003, 16 Title III Alternative Financing Programs issued 1,175 loans totaling almost $13 million.

Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology (PAAT) State PAAT programs seek to advocate on behalf of individuals with disabilities and older Americans, who are often wrongly denied funding for needed technology by school systems, public and private insurance sources, employers and others. This program is specifically designed to provide information, support and representation to individuals with disabilities, their family members and advocates. PAAT programs have helped to dismantle or ease systematic barriers to the acquisition of technology, often in collaboration with state grant projects.

National Technical Assistance
The Tech Act also provides funding for technical assistance to the state Tech Act programs and to the Alternative Financing Programs. Technical assistance is designed to improve the work of the grantees, and is offered in areas such as information dissemination, program evaluation, interagency coordination, and program development.

Action Taken by Congress and the Administration

The Tech Act has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. In March 2002, the Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held an oversight hearing on the Act. In 2004, the Senate held informational fact-finding sessions to better understand the outcomes of the different components of the Act and to explore potential improvements in the law. Further, there is an increased awareness by Congress of the negative effects of the "digital divide" that has confirmed the need to continue and strengthen existing assistive technology programs to ensure that children and adults with disabilities are not left behind in today’s technologically advancing society.

Over the years, however, federal funds to the state grant programs have shrunk significantly, jeopardizing the growth and viability of these important programs. This is due primarily to the "sunset" provision that was contained in the 1998 Act for all state Title I programs. This has meant that state programs have been undergoing reductions in funding – from 100 percent to 75 percent, then to 50 percent. Under the 1998 Act, funding was scheduled to shrink to zero, phasing out the programs altogether.

Congress has continued to support Tech Act programs, however, and has waived the sunset provision in the past three budgets, allowing for the continuation of the Title I projects. It is vital that reauthorization occur this year, and there is currently Congressional activity leading in that direction.

On June 14, 2004, the House passed, by Unanimous Consent, the Improving Access to Assistive Technology for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004. The legislation would reauthorize the Tech Act with no sunset provision. It would mandate state Tech Act projects to provide, with at least 60 percent of their federal dollars, Alternative Financing and Device Loan Programs and it would make Demonstration Centers and Device Recycling Programs discretionary. The bill contains a "special rule" provision, however, that would allow states the flexibility to provide any combination of the above activities; but if they did not choose to provide Alternative Financing and Device Loan services, they would be required to spend at least 70 percent (rather than 60 percent) of their funds on the activities they do choose. The bill also would require states to spend no more than 40 percent (or 30 percent under the "special rule") of their federal funds on required "state leadership" activities—training, technical assistance, awareness and outreach—and makes interagency collaboration optional.

On June 24, 2004, the Senate version of the bill was introduced and referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The bi-partisan bill, chiefly sponsored by Senators Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), mirrors many and expands on several of the provisions of the House-passed bill. The Senate bill, for instance, provides for $500,000/year minimum allotments to state Tech Act Programs and $150,000/year to territories in any year when federal appropriations for the act exceed $29 million. Like the House bill, the Senate bill places an emphasis on activities that will get more assistive devices directly into the hands of consumers, but the Senate version does not require states to spend any specific portion of its funding on any specific categories of activities. Both the House and Senate bills add the American Indian Consortium to the Protection and Advocacy services authorized under the Act, and both provide that the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) of the U.S. Department of Education administer all Tech Act programs, rather than the Federal agency that currently has jurisdiction, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Next steps are for the Senate to pass a bill, either the bill already introduced or the House-passed bill with modifications. Then the House and Senate must reach agreement on a final version and the President must sign the legislation into law.

On the appropriations front, President Bush’s proposed budget for FY 2005 included $15 million for the Title III alternative financing programs. It included no monies whatsoever for the state Title I Tech Act projects. There is a recommendation in the President’s budget, however, for continued funding for the Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology programs and for the national Technical Assistance activities. The House Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations Subcommittee has completed its work and followed the President’s recommendation by appropriating $15 million for Title III alternative financing programs, with no funds appropriated for the Title I state grant projects. The Senate’s Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations subcommittee has not yet begun deliberations on FY 2005 funding.

UCP's and The Arc’s Recommendations

The Congress should:

  1. Congress must work together to reauthorize the Tech Act with legislation, that ensures the continuation of the state AT programs, the alternative financing programs, state Protection and Advocacy programs, and national Technical Assistance programs.
  2. Support the President’s budget request for alternative financing programs ($15 million).
  3. Support at least level FY 2004 appropriations for state Tech Act projects ($26.8 million).

Relevant Committees

House Education and the Workforce Committee: Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees: Subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies

For more information, contact The Arc and UCP Disability Policy Collaboration at 202-783-2229.

Revised 7/2004

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