Westchester nonprofit goes tech-free to highlight challenges people with disabilities face

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The idea of not being able to use a smart phone, computer or tablet for even an hour can strike fear in the hearts of some people, but the leadership at one Westchester nonprofit is voluntarily pledging to go tech-free for 48 hours to raise money for EmpowerTech and bring attention to the obstacles people with disabilities face in a technological world.

“The idea behind the Tech-Free Weekend Challenge is to demonstrate to the world how much we take technology for granted and to give people a small taste of what it is like to live with a disability that prevents you from using everyday technology like driving a car or surfing the web,” says EmpowerTech Executive Director Joan Anderson. “When I first shared this idea with our students, I told them that I wanted to walk a mile in their shoes.”

Anderson has enlisted EmpowerTech board chair and former EmpowerTech student of the Blind Program, Keith Breaux, for the weekend long challenge, starting May 22. The two will check into a Westchester hotel after turning in their technological devices and then attempt to navigate a series of trips and tasks throughout Los Angeles, planned by EmpowerTech students.

The plan is to live stream the couple’s progress to see what obstacles they face and how they are able to overcome them.

The HTN recently spoke with Anderson to learn more about EmpowerTech and the nonprofits’ goals for its Tech-Free weekend. Below is the question and answer.

Q. What is EmpowerTech?

A. EmpowerTech was founded in 1986 by a group of dedicated parents whose children had various disabilities along with other area professionals who saw the need for this type of education. Today, EmpowerTech staff teaches both children and adults with disabilities, with a goal of inclusion to all aspects of our society including education, communication, play and employment.

EmpowerTech was among the first organizations in the country to address the potential of computer technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities. It remains the only Assistive Technology (AT) center in Los Angeles, offering consultation services at no cost to any who need them along with other free community programs.

Q. How important is it that people with disabilities have access to technology?

A. The impact of computers and technology on our lives has been tremendous, but no community has experienced this impact more positively than those who are disabled. For these individuals, being trained on computer technology is not only important– it is liberating– providing a key component to leading independent and productive lives. Computers and technology are now a primary source of assistance for the disabled and provide a greater quality of life. Technology creates freedom and opportunity that has been unmatched in this community.

Q. What are some of the challenges that your students face that EmpowerTech and the use of Assistive Technology are helping with?

A. Until recently, simple life tasks such as banking, shopping, finding meaningful work– even sending an e-mail or exploring the universe of information available on the Web– were truly unimaginable for many disabled persons. EmpowerTech’s training programs and advocacy efforts open these and other wondrous doors for life enrichment, enhanced employment and greater independence of our students.

Q. What is the idea behind the Tech-Free Weekend?

A. My mind is always thinking of new creative ways to advocate for our students and EmpowerTech, not to mention fundraise. It was about 2 a.m. and I thought, ‘May is Disability Awareness Month and we’ve got to do better empowering people with disabilities and the only way to do this is perhaps walk in their shoes for a weekend.’ Having Keith, who’s blind, join me is the perfect opportunity for me to witness just what he has to go through. I’ll be his eyes and he’ll be my teacher on accessibility and the challenges he faces.

Q. What are the challenges that EmpowerTech students have created for you during the weekend?

A. Even here we will be challenged. I am a Type A personality and I will not have any control or say on the activities. The group of activities and suggested bus routes that are being created by our students and volunteers will not be presented to Keith and myself until Friday, May 22 at 1 p.m. I do know that these will be posted on our website, blog and Facebook throughout the weekend and we invite everyone to come and tag along with us, but they have to do so tech-free.

Q. Why is it important to live stream this experience?

A. I guess this is one of those cases of, go big or go home. This is actually the first time anything will ever be streaming live for 48 hours. I actually came up with the whole concept only three weeks ago and knew nothing about streaming. In my head I thought ‘everyone’s doing it why shouldn’t we?’ The production company that is working with us on this really had to do their research to make it happen. “Blind and Unplugged” is a tech-free challenge grant and therefore, both Keith and I have to be accountable at all times that we have not used the technology we promised we wouldn’t, not only to our sponsors, but to our disabled community.

Q. What do you think will be the hardest part about going without technology for the weekend?

A. The answers to this question of course will be completely different between Keith and myself. Keith lost his sight over 10 years ago. Five years ago he was a student in our Blind/Low-Vision Program and back then he couldn’t even turn on a computer, but he now uses AT [Assistive Technology] for everything, even picking out his clothes in the morning. He has a GPS app on his iPhone that tells him almost to the exact step how far away an address is in walking distance. I, on the other hand, still have the ability to drive and panic if I don’t have access to my car. I should be honest here and let everyone know that I have never used public transportation in the U.S. and will be relying heavily on Keith to teach me. I’m also a music lover and have music playing close to 18 hours a day. Since I won’t have access to my iPhone and Pandora or my wireless speaker, you may see me trying to get a hold of a transistor radio.

Q. What do you hope to learn by going tech-free?

A. There is a human disengagement that goes hand in hand with being engaged with technology. In some ways this is exactly how our students feel without the use of technology. Perhaps, for me at least, I will have a better understanding of what they go through on a daily basis.

Q. What are your students’ reactions to the Tech-Free Weekend?

A. Some of our students laughed and thought it was a joke. Others are very encouraging and are excited to see us streaming live. They can’t wait to meet us at some of the locations and lend us a helping hand and to make sure we don’t have our phones!

Q. What is one of your favorite EmpowerTech success stories?

A. There is a new one every week. Many of our students are now securing employment for the first time in their lives. Quite a few have actually started communicating with their parents through augmentative technology and have finally been able to say 3 words that all parents want to hear, ‘I love you.’ From a personal standpoint, I owe our students an enormous debt; their love of life and learning is infectious and gives me great faith in the future. To me they’re all success stories.

Q. How can people help if they want to get involved with EmpowerTech or the Tech-Free Weekend?

A. We definitely need volunteers and I still have sponsorship opportunities available. They can contact me at the office (310) 338-1597 or email me at janderson@empowertech.org. I encourage everyone to follow us on our journey and I will be posting the live stream link on our website empowertech.org.

Posted May 2015.