Reducing Technological Access Barriers for People with Disabilities: Developing a “Collaborative Policy Network” among NIDDR-Sponsored Projects

Nathan W. Moon, M.S.
Workplace Accommodations RERC/Georgia Institute of Technology,
Atlanta, Georgia

Paul M.A. Baker, Ph.D., AICP
Wireless RERC/Georgia Institute of Technology,
Atlanta, Georgia


This paper presents the results of a survey of policy-related activities of eight technology-oriented Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs), as well as a smaller number of NIDDR-sponsored projects with some degree of policy involvement. RERCs that focus on some aspect of technology policy tend to be “solution-centered” rather than disability-centered, and they offer a cross-disability perspective. The technologies and concomitant policy issues of every center are unique, providing a distinctive area of expertise. However, where specific technologies differentiate the RERCs from one another, they frequently engage common policy themes and issues. These cross-cutting policy issues provide a nexus for RERCs to engage in collaborative policy activities, while maintaining the distinctiveness of each center’s research focus. The formation of a formal “Collaborative Policy Network” could assist centers in leveraging each other’s strengths to address the needs of people with disabilities.


Disability policy, technology policy, virtual networks, policy development, policy networks


In its most recent Long Range Plan, for fiscal years 2005-2009, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDDR) outlined its programmatic goals. NIDDR sponsored projects engage directly in short term outcomes: capacity building, research and development, and knowledge translation, as well as indirectly in the pursuit of intermediate outcomes, the adoption and use of new knowledge leading to changes/improvements in policy, practice, behavior, and system capacity. NIDDR’s Logic Model notes that while one agency and its projects cannot possibly be responsible for effecting long term changes on its own, fulfillment of the direct short term outcomes and indirect intermediate outcomes will contribute to effecting long term change in ameliorating barriers to physical and social inclusion faced by persons with disabilities (1).

An important contribution to the understanding of policy formulation and development is the idea of the policy network (2). While much has been written about policy networks in general (3)(4), less has been written about the role of virtual (or online) networks (5), or the role of policy networks in impacting disability policy. We believe the virtual policy network represents both a significantly understudied tool, in general, as well as in terms of its application toward advancing the disability policy agenda.

One area in which NIDDR-sponsored research projects can contribute to NIDDR’s stated outcomes is in the area of policy, specifically through collaborative research, dissemination, and related activities. Policy-related activities among NIDDR projects, most notably its Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs), Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers (RRTCs), and Disability and Rehabilitation Research Projects (DRRPs), have historically been somewhat ancillary to their primary missions. Nevertheless, many of these centers are uniquely situated so as to be able to comment on aspects of the regulatory structure and policymaking affecting persons with disabilities. NIDDR-sponsored projects engage experts capable of addressing the role of policymaking and legislation in realizing or impeding NIDDR’s goals, especially in technical areas and in the diffusion of NIDDR’s research products for the benefit of persons with disabilities. The involvement of subject experts in collaborative policy activities is consistent with NIDDR’s stated interests in knowledge translation, and policy research and dissemination represents an extension of the outcomes based practices advocated by NIDDR in its most recent Long Range Plan.


The cross-cutting nature of most RERCs’ research could be enhanced by expansion of expert resources. We propose the development a virtual network of technology policy experts who will collaborate on articulating applied policy initiatives. The “Collaborative Policy Network” (CPN) brings together experts in various aspects of the policy process to provide support across the RERCs and other NIDDR-sponsored projects, in monitoring of legal, regulatory, and policy activities at the Federal and State level, and identifying and developing appropriate policy response.

In order to develop such a network, it is necessary to: 1) determine the extent of current policy activities among NIDDR-sponsored projects, 2) outline which policy related areas are currently receiving sufficient attention and which ones remain to be engaged, and 3) suggest areas for potential collaboration among centers.


Our preliminary findings suggest that there are at least eight RERCs and three DRRPs/RRTCs with significant policy research components. The RERCs discussed here all specialize in some aspect of technology policy, while the DRRPs/RRTCs are generally engaged with disability policy more generally, and employment and economic policy more specifically.

Each of these centers and projects can make substantial, individual contributions toward technology policy research, as it relates to the needs of persons with disabilities. However, we believe that by collaborating and leveraging these efforts, a greater impact can be made. A strength of many of these centers and projects is their broad approach toward the concept of disability. In contrast to those RERCs and RRTCs which are developed around specific disabilities, these RERCs and RRTCs tend to be rehabilitation or technology-oriented, and broad solution-oriented, in the application of technology and technology policy toward the mitigation of barriers to accessibility and inclusion faced by people with disabilities. One case in point is the Wireless RERC, which investigates wireless policy as it relates to wide range of disabilities, including hearing impairments, visual impairments, and communication impairments. Other RERCs/RRTCs/DRRPs share this commonality in that they possess a similarly broad conception of disability and the role of technology and techno-centric policy in addressing these disabilities. As such, these centers have an unusual degree of flexibility in setting a research agenda that is not tied to any specific disability.

In short, each RERC has a particular technology or rehabilitative intervention on which it focuses; however, a number of centers examine technologies which have, on the surface, some degree of overlap. Take, for example, the Wireless RERC and Telecommunications Access RERC—both may focus on communications technologies and applications, but one focuses on technologies, the other more on applications and use. As a result, they may examine policy issues relevant to common stakeholders and regulatory bodies, such as the FCC. Here, there is a potential for synergistic partnerships across the RERCs for collaborative policy research and outcomes. It is also important to note the commonalities the centers tend to share: 1) issues of access and usability; 2) technological interoperability and interconnection; 3) development of standards and guidelines for technologies; and 4) increased commercialization and social integration of these technologies (e.g. shifting technologies, where possible, away from an AT orientation and more toward UD principles).


Even as the RERCs develop unique focuses on the specific technological issues they engage, common concerns provide a basis for the RERCs to contribute useful insights to each other’s work in the area of technology policy research. Moreover, they provide a functional basis for a collaborative policy network that promises to respect the distinct research areas of each center. So, while there may be different technological focuses, there are often common policy foci that provide leveraging prospects for each center while maintaining the integrity of each center’s focus. Finally, it is important to consider the role that DRRPs such as I.T. Works and the RRTC on Employment Policy might play in aiding the technology policy research. In particular, these projects might provide new avenues for exploring under-researched areas, such as the impact of technology access and use on employment outcomes or economic policies that support or hinder the development of new technologies for persons with disabilities. Considering the tremendous array of clusters of knowledge/policy experts in existence, we believe that an unexploited resource exists. Further, while many of the individual components of a CPN exist, we propose the exploration and development of specific supporting online tools, platforms and practices which can facilitate the deployment and support of such a network.


  1. U.S. Department of Education. (2006). National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) Final Long-Range Plan for Fiscal Years 2005–2009. Federal Register, Doc 06-1255, 71(31), 8165-8200.
  2. Carlsson, L. (2000). Policy networks as collective action. Policy Studies Journal, 28(3), 502-520.
  3. Robinson, S. E. (2006). A decade of treating networks seriously. Policy Studies Journal, 34(4), 589-598.
  4. Hanney, S.R., Gonzalez-Block, M.A., Buxton, M.J., & Kogan, M. (2003). The utilisation of health research in policy-making: Concepts, examples and methods of assessment. Health Research Policy and Systems, 1(2). Available online at: [].
  5. McNutt, K. (2006). Research note: Do virtual policy networks matter? Tracing network structure online. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 39(2): 391-405.


This study was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research Grants # H133E060061 and H133E070026. The opinions contained in this paper are those of the Wireless RERC and Workplace Accommodations RERC and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or NIDRR.

Author Contact Information:

Nathan W. Moon, Center for Advanced Communications Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology, 500 Tenth Street NW, Suite 380, Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0620; Telephone: 404-894-8845; E-mail:

Table 1: Table of Policy-Related Activities for Pertinent RERCs, RRTCs, and DRRPs

Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs)

Center and Location

Policy-Related Outputs

Policy related activities

RERC on Wireless Technologies, Georgia Institute of Technology

- Journal articles

- Regular Newsletters (Technology and IT Policy Highlights and Technology and Disability Policy Highlights)

- Filings (comments, reply comments) with pertinent regulatory agencies

Surveying use and access to wireless technologies by PWD through a Policy Delphi instrument. Results provide important policy-related insights in the areas of access/awareness, regulatory/policy, economic, and technology. Also, focus on telecommuting/telework policies. Finally, focus on emergency communications, especially wireless emergency communications for PWD and the update of the Emergency Alert System.

RERC on Workplace Accommodations, Georgia Institute of Technology

- Journal articles

- Regular newsletters (Workplace Accommodations Policy Highlights)

Provide ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the pertinent policy, legislative, and regulatory environments. Develop a policy framework to identify and assess policies, practices and issues that influence the nature and availability of workplace accommodations. Generate policy and practice options, and propose programmatic recommendations.

RERC on Communication Enhancement, Duke University

- Journal articles

Development activities include technology and policy watch.

Universal Interface and Technology Access RERC, University of Wisconsin

- Industry training courses and workshops

- Undergraduate and graduate education in the Industrial Engineering (Human Factors) and Biomedical Engineering Departments

Focusing on emerging technologies and trends, a “technology watch” project will provide ongoing analysis of accessibility and usability issues and opportunities, and suggesting questions for further investigation. Also, there are development activities in support of national and international standards and guidelines efforts, including Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, INCITS/V2, HFES, and IEEE voting accessibility standards, and others.

Telecommunications Access RERC, Gallaudet University and University of Wisconsin

- Journal articles

- Industry training courses and workshops

- Filings with pertinent regulatory agencies

To increase the number and level of expertise of people working to make standard telecommunication systems and products accessible and usable for people who have disabilities or who are aging; to move ideas and concepts out into the field in the form of standards or commercial products; and to provide useful information from our research to the telecommunications industry, consumers, and policymakers.

Technology Transfer RERC (T2RERC), SUNY-Buffalo

- Journal articles

- Industry/government-targeted publications and resources

- Seminars and workshops

T2RERC looks at the impact that supply-side legislation has on the availability of products in the marketplace for people with disabilities and people aging with and into disability. The impact of six programs linked to federal supply-side legislation are evaluated. The central question to be answered is "What impact does each program (and by implication the parent federal legislation) have on the availability of assistive technology in the marketplace?" The six programs to be evaluated include: 1) SBIR; 2) STTR; 3) university-based technology licensing; 4) federal laboratory-based technology licensing; 5) federal laboratory CRADA; and 6) the RERC on Technology Transfer.

RERC on Accessible Medical Instrumentation, Marquette University

- Technical reports

- Published papers (RESNA) outlining Delphi polling research

Policy analyses to explore how medical policies affect healthcare utilization and employment in the healthcare professions of persons with disabilities.

RERC on Telerehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh

- Journal articles

Development of Virtual Library on Telerehabilitation that serves as the focal point for information dissemination on telerehab-germane practice, policy, and technology.

Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers (RRTCs), Disability Rehabilitation and Research Projects (DRRPs), and other related projects (DBTACs, etc.)

Information Technology Technical Assistance and Training Center (ITTATC), Georgia Institute of Technology

- Dissemination publications

This project provides information, training, and technical assistance to support the implementation of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act to industry, state officials, trainers, and consumers. Works closely with federal regulatory agencies including the Federal Communications Commission, the Access Board, the Department of Justice, and the General Services Administration to advance understanding and knowledge utilization of approaches to the requirements of Sections 255 and 508 through training and technical assistance activities.

DRRP: I.T. Works, University of Iowa

- Journal articles

To identify barriers to and facilitators of the hiring, retention, advancement, and wages of individuals with disabilities.

RRTC on Employment Policy and Individuals with Disabilities, Cornell University

- Journal articles

The immediate purpose is to contribute to the success of the transition from caretaker policies to economic self-sufficiency policies. Specific goals and objectives are: completion of new research activities that will generate knowledge about the effects of past disability policy and other factors on economic self-sufficiency; Short-term project outcomes include: annual interpretation of updated employment rate trends; a synthesis and critique of many relevant evaluation efforts; three or more significant policy options and ideas for next steps; reviews of three or more significant policy or program successes; detailed information on interactions between numerous programs and policies, and how they discourage employment; estimates of impacts of two public policies on employment and earnings for state VR clients; estimates of the impact of the ADA on both employer provision of accommodations and job retention after disability onset; estimates of the return to higher education for those with profound hearing loss; and two additional analyses of the role that human capital plays in determining economic self-sufficiency for adults with disabilities. Intermediate outcomes include use of this information in the policy improvement effort, and long-term outcomes include policy changes that increase the economic self-sufficiency of people with disabilities.