What is “Enabling Technology”? How Can It Help People with Disabilities?

/ September 27, 2017

By Debra Payne

About the Author

Debra Payne is the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She began her career as a volunteer at Clover Bottom Developmental Center when she was 14 years old, and then, after graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, came back to work at the center as a developmental technician. She has worked in multiple state roles serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In her current role, she is responsible for the oversight of a statewide community-based service delivery system supported by more than 1,450 employees, about 400 community providers, and three regional offices. Under her leadership, the state exited more than two decades of litigation surrounding conditions in developmental centers, and DIDD achieved network accreditation for Person-Centered Excellence, the first state service delivery system in the nation to do so. In the most recent issue of “The Case for Inclusion” report from United Cerebral Palsy, Tennessee’s work tracking Health, Safety, and Quality of Life was first out of the 50 states.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

Anyone who knows me knows that technology is not my strong point.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate how it can improve people’s lives on a daily basis.  This is true for all people, whether a disability exists or not.  It gets us where we want to go.  It reminds us of events and things we need to do.  It helps us communicate with others.  It helps us in emergencies and in many other ways too numerous to mention.

Technology can also change the way we support people with disabilities.  Tennessee has just emerged from its last longstanding lawsuit related to the conditions inside our now-closed developmental centers, as the parties recognized that the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is providing high-quality supports in the community.  As we sought to transform the way the state provides services to people with disabilities, we learned some important lessons and also learned that our efforts had some unintended consequences.  For instance, instead of helping people become more independent in the community, we have, over time, created dependence for people by “over serving” them.  We now have an opportunity to correct course and push the pendulum back to the center.  There are many people who can and should be supported to live more independently.  “Enabling technology” can help us get there.

So what is enabling technology? There are many examples, but it can include sensors, mobile technology and remote caregiving supports.

Let’s say a person with a disability wants to live independently, but perhaps needs assistance with temperature control on the oven or the stove to help them cook dinner.  Sensors can assist in ensuring that person sets the stove at the correct temperature, and alert a tele-caregiver (a trained support professional who works from a central location and is connected by phone or video) if additional assistance is needed.  Another example, if a person wants to take the bus to get from home to the mall, a mobile application on a smart phone can provide instructions and notify the person when he or she should get off the bus.  There are countless options, and many can be tailored to fit the needs of the person.  That’s the beauty here, this is not a “one-size-fits-all” model, nor should it be, because we all know every person is different and has individualized support needs.

I want to make clear though, enabling technology is about independence, not monitoring.  We won’t be watching a person’s every move.  We won’t be using it to spy on paid support staff.  We won’t be using it as a security system for providers.  Most of all, this technology is designed to supplement the important work done by direct support professionals to improve the lives of persons in our services.  This is not about replacing staff.  All supports provided by DIDD should have the end goal of allowing a person to live the lives they envision for themselves.  Technology, natural supports and paid staff can work hand-in-hand to make that happen.

These efforts are already working in some other states.   Many are already using enabling technology to support hundreds of people to live independently, while giving them and their families the peace of mind that help is never far away should an emergency arise.   People supported by DIDD should have the same opportunity to live life on their terms.  That’s why DIDD is testing different forms of enabling technology early next year in its home and community based waiver programs.  We want to launch this project in a way that is well planned and thoughtful, to ensure that supports are high quality and assist the person with achieving his or her life goals.

It’s also important to stress that this is a choice.  Enabling technology can be a great tool for many people who want to live more independently.  However, it’s not a good fit or the right choice for everyone.   We are not going to force anyone to use remote supports.  We do want people and their families to think about whether it’s something they are interested in and could help people achieve their employment and community living goals.

Over the next few months, we’ll be having conversations with many people about technology and whether it could be a good fit for them.  We have also formed a Technology Advisory Council to ensure that we’re hearing from self-advocates, families, providers and other stakeholders as we launch what we believe is an important complement to our current and future support options.

If you would like to learn more about what kind of technology is out there, I invite you to look at the videos linked below from some of our presenters at our Enabling Technology Summit, which was held recently in Nashville. The videos may be able to help you envision how these technologies could support you or your loved one. I think you will be surprised and impressed with some of the options available.

I look forward to exploring the possibilities here in Tennessee and enhancing our supports using enabling technology where it makes sense.

AbleLink Technologies:






Night Owl Support Systems:




I want to thank Commissioner Payne for taking the time to share her thoughts and this information about new and intriguing uses of technology for people with disabilities. As always, if you have questions or concerns, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org or leave comments below.

A note to my faithful readers: The federal grant that funded much of the work of the TennesseeWorks Partnership Project ends on Sept. 30, 2017, but that does not mean the work of the TennesseeWorks Partnership is over. The Partnership will continue its efforts to improve the employment landscape for people with disabilities in Tennessee. However, this blog will now appear twice a month, rather than weekly. As always, if you have questions you want answered or some disability- and employment-related issue addressed, please email at janet.shouse@vumc.org, and I will attempt to find answers. Thank you!

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