All Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs) are expected to provide technical assistance on request. "Technical assistance" actually encompasses a wide range of activities. By definition, each activity should impart some new information or skill that is viewed as useful by the recipient of our expertise. Some consider unsolicited contacts to be a distraction from the work at hand, but they are more than part of our mission they are a reciprocal resource. It is in our RERC's interest to be accessible, responsive and helpful.
The Tech Transfer RERC at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, operates at the "intersection" of various stakeholders (inventors, clinicians, manufacturers, end-users, etc.), so the technical assistance rendered is quite varied. Our staff team now has six years of experience fielding and responding to these varied requests. We average several hundred technical assistance actions per year.
Most of these contacts are brief exchanges in which someone asks for information or referral and we provide it. On referrals to other entities, we ask the recipient to call us back if the response they receive is not satisfactory, to avoid having callers feel that we merely passed them on, rather than actually assisting them. Fortunately, these return calls rarely occur, except those which let us know the callers did acquire what they sought.
Here are some examples
Several times per week, consumers and family members call us on the telephone seeking information about new products, funding programs and business support options. We routinely provide the facts that are immediately accessible to us, along with contact information for appropriate referrals. Having a partnership involving a research university (University at Buffalo), a company (AZtech), and a consumer agency (Western New York Independent Living Center), permits us to respond to requests on a peer-to-peer level. These calls typically require about ten minutes of staff effort.
Clinicians and researchers contact us via telephone or e-mail, about sponsored projects related to their practice or study. We typically provide information on relevant programs sponsored by the Department of Education, National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Science Foundation. We also mention recent publications, companies and research centers on related topics. These contacts, about one per week, take about one hour to respond with all the data requested.
Sponsored project directors and new proposal authors contact us about twice per month, to discuss a project in development or in progress. We provide information on how we might participate in the project, and we suggest others who are equally or more appropriate. Often there are activities in the private sector, in other government agencies, or even in other countries, that should be included. Making these connections is an important aspect of building networks within the field of assistive technology. There are simply too few resources available to have excessive redundancy.
In-depth Research is Available
Other technical assistance actions are more extensive, involving several person-hours or days of time, and occasionally some investment of project resources. We make a deliberate decision to provide this level of assistance where we think our assistance will help accomplish something worthwhile, particularly for other US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS)-funded programs.
For example, we worked with the RERC on Communication Enhancement to establish a project with the Southeast Region of the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC). We understood that the RERC wanted to establish a program to monitor new technology developments, and we knew that the FLC's Southeast Region wanted to establish a project in the area of assistive technology. Putting them together and shaping a project was a form of extended technical assistance.
The RERC on Prosthetics and Orthotics for Children asked us to review a newly developed product, to identify other mainstream applications. We surveyed therapists at the American Occupation Therapy Association (AOTA) conference, and held focus groups of people from other industries, to develop a list of potential applications, and to identify issues they might encounter.
A Broader Reach Can Yield Mutual Benefits
Our technical assistance is not limited to RERCs. We have reviewed prototype devices developed by Rehabilitation Research Training Centers (RRTCs) and consulted on development proposals written by State Technical Assistance (T/A) Programs. As a National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) grantee, we also recognize the need to be responsive to the technical needs of our sponsoring agency. Whether it is a call for information for a report on Capitol Hill, a review of planning and policy documents, or someone referred to us, we strive to be responsive to all NIDRR requests for technical assistance.
Providing technical assistance to other agencies is invaluable for establishing relationships "building social networks", as it is called in public policy analysis. When a new opportunity arises, it is much easier to enlist the participation of someone you know and have worked with. In the past year, we have provided technical assistance to several federal agencies, large corporations and research institutions.
Technical assistance is a two-way street. The people and agencies we assist today will often be sources of reciprocal assistance tomorrow. It is part of our mission but it is also a renewable resource.
[ Top of Page ]