Best Practices


youthAbility Tech Access Program Best Practices

The youthAbility Tech Access Program, a national collaborative grant administered by IAJVS and funded by a generous grant from NEC Foundation of America, came to a close in February 2005.   By providing grants to volunteer agencies to make one-time assistive technology adaptations to volunteer positions for a person with a particular disability, the program was able to demonstrate how the effective use of assistive technology services and devises can increase the participation of youth with disabilities in community service.   The impact of the project will continue to extend far into the future, well beyond the duration of this grant, as the assistive technology modifications will belong to the volunteer agency, allowing them to continue to recruit additional youth with disabilities to fill that position.

Assistive Technology is defined by the AT Act (P.L. 105-394) as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system . . . that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."   A 1993 study done by the National Council on Disability surveyed over 130 individuals with disabilities to evaluate the costs and benefits associated with the use of different kinds of technology-related assistance.   They found that 65 percent of working-age persons reduced their dependence on family members, 58 percent reduced their need for paid assistance, and 40 percent increased their earnings.

Individuals with disabilities who need AT device to work can almost always get their costs underwritten by the federal vocational rehabilitation program in their state.   Unfortunately, this is not so for volunteer service positions where participants do not earn a salary or wage.   These service positions are often, however, a steppingstone to employment as they help the participant to build their skills as well as a resume.   Many of the devices people need are simple, low-cost items.   They include amplified phones and assisted listening devices for those who are hard of hearing; Braille note takers and output devices for the visually impaired; and simple switching devices to allow a person with a physical disability to operate a computer.

IAJVS project staff selected recipients through a competitive process, awarding 50 mini-grants to 15 community service agencies across the country, such as the Cleveland YMCA, the Willow Creek Food Pantry near Chicago, IL, and the "My Corps Summer" program in Philadelphia, PA.   Facilitated by five IAJVS affiliate agencies, the successful grant applicants requested a variety of assistive technology, ranging from transportation assistance to personal assistance devices, from laptop computers with special software to reading pens, and from a ramp to allow access to a building to a WatchMinder to help a student maintain focus on time-specific tasks.   The grants ranged from $60 to $1900, and averaged $448.00.

Among the innovative mini-grant recipients were:


  • The Lieberman Nursing Home purchased a WatchMinder with their youthAbility Tech Access Program mini-grant.   The WatchMinder encourages individuals with attention deficit to stay on task by reminding the individual to pay attention to the task at hand.   Because it looks like any other watch, the WatchMinder does not have negative social drawbacks.


  • The Jewish Vocational Service in Chicago received Dragon NaturallySpeaking computer software, which enables users to create and edit documents, spreadsheets and email via voice rather than keyboard.   The software will allow JVS to continue to utilize volunteers with physical disabilities.


  • The National School and Community Corps, a national service program that combines national service with urban school reform as a dynamic part of school restructuring, received Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs, such as Palm Pilots) to assist volunteers with time management and organizational skills.


  • The National School and Community Corps also received reading pens, portable audio tools that have the ability to scan words and/or lines of text, repeat them out loud, and define them, so that volunteer counselors with reading difficulties receive help during their volunteer assignments.


Originally developed to complement the network's youthAbility program, a national model for the outreach to and recruitment of youth with disabilities into community service funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, this project leveraged those funds to demonstrate on a national basis how AT can be used to effectively integrate the target population into national service positions.   Because of the IAJVS network's vast experience in serving this population, we know the importance of AT services and devices.   They are equalizers that level the playing field, allowing a person with a disability to participate and develop their potential.   We are proud that our network could share that knowledge with the many community groups and non-profit agencies that participated in youthAbility.