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Participation all across the board

"The biggest challenge facing disability software companies in the US right now is that we are heading for a 40 per cent turnover in SEN staff," says Cheryl Volkman, head of AbleNet. As a result of the high turnover of staff, there is a constant intake of new teachers. The challenge for companies is to make sure that new staff are aware of products and, more importantly, know how to use them.

Cheryl is a good person to advise them. At the age of 19, she began her career as an occupational therapy assistant at the United Cerebral Palsy Centre in Minneapolis. She became interested in assistive technology when she attended a seminar given by a man who had designed a switch and adapted battery operated toys.

"Several weeks later, I received a call from a chemist from Honeywell who had also seen the home-made switches. He is the type of person who does something to solve problems he sees. He thought the switches could be designed better, so he called United Cerebral Palsy and volunteered to help us. I was delighted to work with him. We started to design switches of our own. One thing led to another and, before we knew it, we were starting a business."

The first switches were made of wood, were square and could be activated with just the lightest touch. Reliability was crucial. To this day, they take quality very seriously. A designer once drove a car over a communication device and it still worked. He also spends lot of time throwing switches against a wall as staff know ths is the treatment that will be meted out to their products by some of their users.

AbleNet, based in Minneapolis, is an interesting company in that it is 100 per cent employee owned. "Due to our grassroots beginning, we felt it was important to find a way to make sure that all the people who helped start AbleNet and grow it would be rewarded from that growth," says Cheryl. "Employee ownership means that not only all employees share in gains and losses, just as any shareholder would, but everyone also learns all aspects of the business, including finance. Employee owners also help decide new directions for the company. Everyone feels like owners, because they are owners."

Its philosophy is that everyone can participate in some way, regardless of their disability. All AbleNet's products are intended to stimulate users. It is its belief that once parents and care providers get hands-on experience with simple technology, they will find other ways to use assistive technology in their home.

The new catalogue is a fabulous resource for teachers. Organised by time of day, not subject, it contains details of products, ideas for activities and lessons and has the educational objectives and outcomes clearly listed. As Cheryl says: "We have to try to make things easier for teachers, parents and the students themselves. Our activity packs boast that you open the box and within five minutes you will be doing an activity."

AbleNet: stand SN53

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