Monday, September 30, 2002

GRAFTON, N.D. - Twice a month, employees from Adaptive Equipment Services hop into a one-ton truck and travel across the state to the homes, schools or places of work of people with disabilities to fit them for adaptive equipment.

Without the Mobile Outreach Program, people with disabilities in this sparsely populated state would not have their wheelchair seated and positioned or other equipment mounted. In each trip, Adaptive Equipment Services employees service up to 15 people; that's some 360 a year.

"We take our work on the road," said Al Szklarski, an orthotics technician for the company. "We go north of Grand Forks to Minot and Bismarck and anywhere along the way."

Yet the program, which has been on wheels for 10 years now, is in danger of losing its funding in two years. It's not alone, either; scores of other programs across the country with an eye for assistive technology are also in danger.

All of these programs grew out of the 1988 Assistive Technology Act, which allocated some $36 million in grants to states for improving access to assistive technology. The act, however, is scheduled to "sunset" in 2004.

Judie Lee, who directs the Assistive Technology Act programs in North Dakota, said so far, the programs have been saved with amendments that, rather than cutting funding altogether, have shaved it by a certain percentage. Programs in their 9th year, for instance, have seen their funding shaved by 25%. Programs in their 10th year, like the Mobile Outreach Program, have seen their funding cut in half.

"It would be very sad to lose these services, at this point," Lee said. "We're working hard to make Congress understand they're a critical piece for a lot of states."

Lee and Don Olson, director of the North Dakota Development Center, parent company of Adaptive Equipment Services, said Congress should be taking up the issue this winter. If they do allow the Assistive Technology Act to "sunset," the programs will have to find other sources of funding, possibly from the state, they said.

Olson remains confident that the Mobile Outreach Program will survive. With a scant, $22,000 budget, cutting his program wouldn't do much, he said. If it is cut, he hopes he can pull together enough funds from various agencies to keep it alive.

"Cutting this program would definitely have an impact," Olson said. "There are a lot of people out there with complicated equipment needs, and there's no private-sector presence in North Dakota to pick up what we do." HME