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George had a lot to say. When asked about how RHD’s IDEATE program helped him navigate technology during the pandemic, George explained, “I originally just had a computer and a piece of a hanger that I could type ‘George Hi’ with. I couldn’t do anything on my own besides spell those two words, not even get on the internet browser. Since then, I’ve learned to use Siri speech recognition and new software that allows me to do more on my own. I now have more independence than I ever had before.”

At the start of the COVID pandemic, many of us found ourselves in unfamiliar territory—scrambling to adjust to working and socializing from home. But long before Zoom became a household word, this altered way of life was just the way it was for an often-overlooked portion of the population, including George, the CEO of GFresh Emporium.

IDEATE, a program within Pennsylvania’s Intellectual Disabilities Division, is an inclusive employment organization that provides support and assistive technology to individuals with barriers to getting and sustaining earning opportunities. From its inception in 2014, the program has been addressing accessibility and how to guide employers on how they can be more accommodating to their members.

According to Kaelynne Koval, RHD IDEATE program director, “For most Americans with disabilities, this ‘new normal’ isn’t really new.” She continued, “Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 30 years ago, people with significant disabilities are still frequently relegated to staying at home, as communities lack accessible transportation for disabled individuals and workplaces are often unwilling to make individual accommodations.”

When the lockdown began in March 2020, IDEATE’s already technology-reliant service delivery model went into overdrive. As members often present significant impairment or experience fatigue when using traditional computing methods, the team worked with what clients could do. They explored strength-based breakthroughs including a facial recognition system that was given to an individual with quadriplegia to navigate the computer and a mouse that is worn like a pair of glasses. They also introduced RHD’s Smart Home and Residential computing initiative—with the goal of designing secure systems and devices that lead to greater independence for participants.

The IDEATE team also developed a robust virtual curriculum in community participation supports, filled with guest speakers and live performances, using several innovative mediums. With these breakthrough technologies and unique programs, resilient and determined participants discovered new skills and increased independence.

George added, “With the use of my voice I can now “tap” different buttons and control my tablet with much less support from my team.”  He continued, “Due to the program’s constant support I know how to use my iPad to control all aspects of my business independently. I now have an online website that I can navigate

myself and sell to people all over the country. I know how to use my email. I use it to communicate with other businesses, my team, and my customers. I can use many other apps as well to track my inventory, sales, and help feature.”

In addition to helping George and other clients improve their technical capabilities during the COVID crisis, IDEATE 3D printed hundreds of face shields that were shipped across the country to help protect RHD participants and staff. They also opened an urban farm called Cultivate Philly to provide new employment opportunities in a pandemic-safe occupation.

This year has proven to be just as fruitful; the IDEATE team is opening a clinical computing lab at RHD’s headquarters – 4700 Wissahickon Ave. in Philadelphia, PA. This newly-renovated space will serve more individuals as well as host a collaboration for Occupational Therapy, Environmental Design, and Assistive Technology. The new lab, called ‘INNOV8’ opened its doors to members on May 15, 2021.

IDEATE’s ingenuity and progress during a trying year and beyond is a testament to its strong, dedicated team and the even stronger clients they are privileged to serve.

George concluded, “They help me a lot. They didn’t just teach me things – they continue to help me grow and learn new things even to this day.”

Learn more about IDEATE or consider supporting this program’s work here: IDEATE