INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Cristen Carson Reat of BridgingApps Tells Us How the Houston-based Nonprofit Leverages Technology to Help People with Disabilities
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Cristen Carson Reat: To be honest, daily life during COVID-19 has been a struggle for my family. My son was born with multiple disabilities, and everyday life is filled with many challenges relating to health, accessing education, and engaging in our community. Living during a global pandemic has exacerbated some of these challenges in ways I could not have imagined at the beginning of 2020. I am sure there are thousands upon thousands of other caregivers who are dealing with the same issues and feeling unsupported and stressed.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded BridgingApps
Cristen Carson Reat: As a military veteran of the U.S. Army, I served as a linguist and always interested in other cultures and languages. Most of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on Russian studies, and I worked early on in my career for The World Affairs Council Greater Houston. This nonprofit organization creates educational programs about international affairs.
In 2003, my son, Vincent, was born with Down syndrome, chronic health conditions, and other disabilities. When he was 6 years old, I helped create a support group comprised of parents of young children with disabilities and therapists who were interested in how technology could help our children thrive and grow and support their therapies. This support group grew into the website BridgingApps.org, and we found a home in Easter Seals Greater Houston in 2011. We are part of the national Easter Seals network of 63 affiliates across North America.
The mission at BridgingApps is to find ways of leveraging the power of mobile device technology to enhance the lives of those with disabilities. BridgingApps is the result of my passion and desire to share information and create a platform for other parents, therapists, people with disabilities, and professionals to learn best practices from each other. This has been underscored most notably during the pandemic as we have witnessed an unparalleled struggle by families with children with disabilities and caregivers to feel supported, but have also been able to “plug” in hundreds of others struggling with accessing technology for virtual school, work and socialization.
How does BridgingApps innovate?
Cristen Carson Reat: Working with a phenomenal team of individuals that ranges from psychologists, social workers, and educators to physical therapists, job coaches, and app developers, we can draw from many disciplines to deliver a range of services to assist people with disabilities and their families. BridgingApps vets, curates, and maintains a database of over 3,000 mobile applications, and our aim is to help shortcut someone’s searching process of finding an app solution(s) that can enhance their life and that they might not even be aware of. Maintaining an easy to use interface that can sort by keyword search, price, educational standard, platform, and more requires constant updating.
Thousands of applications come onto the market every day for both the Apple and Android platforms, and we try to sort out, categorize, and review apps most relevant for our users. We achieve this by establishing relationships with app developers, constantly updating our database, and recruiting professionals in various fields to write app reviews. Our mission is to bridge the gap between this technology and people with disabilities, be that a child with cerebral palsy, an elderly parent with dementia, or a Veteran with PTSD.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your organization, and how are you coping?
Cristen Carson Reat: Prior to COVID-19, my team often worked from home simply because the geography of the Houston area is extremely spread out. Much of the work of maintaining a website can be done remotely, but our in-person assistive technology services ceased in February 2020 due to the pandemic. In March, all of Easter Seals Houston’s 250 employees went remote because much of their work provides in-home therapeutic services.
There have been some unexpected benefits of providing virtual services to clients, many of whom already faced barriers to care and program access, such as transportation challenges, scheduling difficulties, and endurance issues due to their disability. To make matters more complicated, some services delivered via telehealth have not been traditionally reimbursed by insurance companies, but exceptions have been made during the pandemic allowing clients to continue receiving care. However, for some families with young children, virtual services have gotten siblings and parents involved in therapy, removed travel time, making scheduling easier, and connected individuals in new and creative ways.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Cristen Carson Reat: I have been a proponent for the use of technology and how it can positively impact someone’s life in extraordinary ways, which has been expressed through the creation of BridgingApps. Before the pandemic, I was frustrated by the general lack of understanding of how technology can often serve as a lifeline for both children and adults with disabilities. This lack of understanding typically played out in the media in terms of debating the harm of “screen time” for children and the vicious shaming of parents who allow “too much.”
Rarely were the voices of parents of the 1 in 5 children with disabilities or 1 in 4 adults with disabilities in the U.S. heard on this topic. In fact, most studies on “screen time” do not take people with disabilities into account at all.
This huge demographic is left out of the discussion entirely. No one can deny the positive impact of a nonverbal child using an app to communicate, a teenager with autism using a wayfinding app to get to their job, or an adult with a visual impairment reading with an audiobook.
The global pandemic has highlighted the role of technology in the lives of those traditionally marginalized because we now have all had some experience with being restricted in our access to grocery stores, doctors, and other critical services. Technology has allowed many to remain employed. Technology has allowed loved ones to cut off from visitors in nursing homes to see the face of a family member using videoconferencing apps. It has allowed therapists to continue therapy with young children who just need that extra boost to catch up to their same age peers. It has transformed access to health care via telemedicine for many people with disabilities, especially Veterans, who often went without due to major barriers. There are limitations, sure, but by and large, there is no going back!
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and BridgingApps in the future?
Cristen Carson Reat: Stress and anxiety in my life have been constant companions and, like many, only exacerbated during the pandemic. My three go-to stress relievers are regular exercise, immersing myself in a good book, and connecting with friends in various methods – phone, videoconferencing, texting, and picture sharing. Reaching out for help is key, as I find both personally and professionally, most people rise to the occasion when they are asked! There has never been a more exciting time in the world of technology to push the boundaries of what is possible. Still, even more exciting than focusing on technology for technology’s sake is how it can be used in new ways to improve lives. The focus of BridgingApps will be to find new ways to connect people with solutions and provide easy to use training options to make those tools usable and relevant for their unique situation.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Cristen Carson Reat: Most organizations that serve people with disabilities do not view themselves as competitors, but as complementary providers to improve lives. There are many organizations that publish app reviews like Common Sense Media, Learning Works for Kids, and the Global Accessibility Reporting Initiative (GARI), but few that approach app reviews in the disability app review space. BridgingApps is first and foremost a community of people with disabilities, parents of kids with disabilities, caregivers, therapists, veterans, special education teachers, and other professionals who try to break the siloed information barriers and share it out to be accessible to all. I think continuing to create collaborations with both app developers and organizations who take a deep dive into specific areas like the Harvard Medical School Division of Digital Psychiatry or the American Foundation for the Blind will keep information current, relevant, and usable many years to come.
Your final thoughts?
Cristen Carson Reat: A quote I have seen that struck me, “Work from home was never a privilege for people with disabilities.” I think this is a great life lesson for so many, but I hope that corporations sit up and take notice that technology can do so much for their staff – disabled or not; and that they see their way through employing more that might need to “work from home.” They might just reap more rewards than they expect.
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