Better lives through technology: our task as service providers

Technology plays an important role in our everyday lives, and has become central to coping with almost any domain of life, shaping the way we live, work and communicate. A study showed that Austrians would rather abstain for a week from sex than from using mobile phones and internet. Technology’s potential to enhance quality of life is even bigger for persons with disability as it can overcome barriers, increase autonomy and self-determination.

Unfortunately, research and our experience indicate clearly that persons with disability use technology much less than others, which is especially true for persons with intellectual disabilities, and applies to mainstream and assistive technologies.

As a service provider for persons with intellectual disability, we consider that contributing to reduce the digital divide is part of our tasks, in order to enable users to lead self-determined lives included in the community. It is a complex endeavour, as many factors contribute to the lack of access to technology: technology is often too difficult to use; persons with intellectual disability are seldom involved in technology development; independent information and advice are difficult to get; we still don’t have sufficient knowledge and awareness of the benefits of technology; most person-centred planning processes don’t integrate technology as part of support packages; and funding for technology is hard to get.

In order to address these challenges, over the past years we have implemented several measures. We cooperate with international networks such as EASPD, AAATE and ENTELIS to increase our knowledge and to offer our experience and expertise in research and technological development. We engage in projects with participative and inclusive design, including direct involvement of service users in all stages of the project; these projects have the potential to increase relevance and accessibility of products. We provide training for users aimed at increasing their opportunities to effectively participate in the digital world through computers, internet and social media. We are creating a better infrastructure for users’ access to internet and wireless technology in group homes and other housing services. We started providing training for staff raising awareness for the potential of technology as part of the support package. One of our occupational therapists has specialised in augmentative and alternative communication through iPad and Apps developing individual solutions for users, which had an enormous impact on their quality of life.

Lebenshilfe Salzburg operates in the Salzburg region, and we are part of an Austrian umbrella of Lebenshilfe organisations which provide services to some 11.000 users with intellectual disability, thanks to more than 7000 staff. Recently all Lebenshilfe organisations decided to move forward together, by increasing knowledge and competence, setting up structures and exploiting the role of technology in supporting planning and implementation. We will submit an Erasmus+ application to learn from organisations who specialized in providing independent information and counselling on (assistive) technology, providing training to staff, users and families, and in considering technology as integral part of support planning. Lebenshilfe organisations plan to implement innovations step by step, even thinking about building an expert centre to be used by the group as there are currently no counselling centres for independent information and advice for (assistive) technology in Austria.

The Entelis network is a great opportunity for us to learn, and some of the organisations we would like to visit are Entelis partners. We would be happy if they hosted our delegates and shared their knowledge and experience with them supporting us to achieve our goals.

 By Karin Astegger, Entelis Associate Partner Lebenshilfe Salzburg Gmbh