Getting A Big List Easter Seals Loan Program Helps Disabled Acquire Equipment, From Lap-tops To

SPRINGFIELD — When 22-year-old Terresita Williams needed to buy a laptop computer, she faced a problem common among college students her age – her lack of a credit history made it hard for her to get a loan.
Williams´s case was special, however, because last November she was in a car accident that left her with learning and memory difficulties. Her caseworker recommended that she use a computer to help her retain information and organize her thoughts and activities.

Even though Williams was ineligible for a traditional loan, the Amherst resident has a brand new Compaq laptop today, thanks to a new loan program created specifically for people with disabilities, elders and their families.

The loan came from the Massachusetts Assistive Technology (MA AT) Loan Program, which provides low-cost cash loans that enable people with disabilities to buy the technology and other devices they need to live more independently.

Managed by Easter Seals

The loan program – the only one of its kind in the state – is managed by Easter Seals Massachusetts in partnership with Sovereign Bank and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. The program is funded by a $1.7 million federal grant from the Alternative Financing Program of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, US Department of Education.

Between January, when the program was launched, and early August, nearly $308,000 in loans has been distributed to people throughout Massachusetts, according to MA AT Program Director Jason M. Luciano of Easter Seals. The loans ranged from $700 to approximately $42,000.

Most were used to buy modified vehicles that can accommodate wheelchairs and the special transportation needs of people with disabilities. Other loans bought computers and software, stair lifts, wheelchair lifts for vans, medical equipment, Braille displays, ramps, and hearing aids.

Memory enhancement aids, print magnifiers, electric wheelchairs and scooters, as well as certain vehicle and home modifications are also eligible for loans under the program.

In addition, the MA AT Loan Program offers funding for assistive technology services that help people determine which device may be right for them. These services also help people locate and purchase the items, train them on their use and provide maintenance and repair.

According to Luciano, the MA AT Loan Program offers lower interest rates than traditional bank loans, with repayment lengths based on the expected useful life of the device purchased. Most loans for computers are repaid in three years, for example, while vehicle and home modification loans can be stretched out over a 10-year period, lowering monthly payments.

Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for the program, applicants must meet the following requirements:

They must have a disability or represent someone with a disability. For example, a parent might submit the application for a child with a disability.
The devices being sought must be used primarily to increase the independence of someone with a disability.
Applicants must have been Massachusetts residents for the past six months.
Loan requests are received by the MA AT Loan Program and then reviewed by Sovereign Bank. If the bank is concerned about the applicant’s ability to repay the loan, the application is sent to the MA AT Loan Program committee, which decides whether to guarantee the loan and pay if off if the applicant defaults.
After six months in operation, the MA AT Loan Program had approved 74{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the loan requests. For traditional bank loans, the approval rate is approximately 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}.

The second review benefited the Whitmans of Shirley, Mass., whose 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, has cerebral palsy and other health issues and uses a wheelchair. Bending her legs is painful for her.

With Samantha sitting in the front seat of their Hyundai sedan and her father, Wayne, driving, her mother, Yvonne, had to squeeze into the back seat with Samantha’s two brothers, a 15-year-old who is nearly six feet tall, and an active 2-year-old.

Despite their need for a larger car, the family was turned down for a loan because of some sudden financial difficulties. After applying to the MA AT Loan Program, however, they were able to purchase a new van that is more comfortable for Samantha and, with its sliding doors, spares her parents’ backs as they move her in and out of the car.

Technology Within Reach

The MA AT Loan Program serves a large population in Massachusetts. According to the US Census, approximately 1.4 million people aged 5 and over lived in Worcester, Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties in 2000. Of those, a total of 19.5{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} had a disability.

The program pays special attention to the financial strains that face people with disabilities and their families.

“Many times people with disabilities have multiple health issues or their disability was caused by an injury, which means they lose work time and income,” Luciano said. “Add to that the high unemployment rate of people with disabilities, and the result often is credit history problems. Banks are unwilling to give traditional loans to people they perceive as high risk.”

A National Organization on Disability/Harris Poll in 2003 found that only 35{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of adults with disabilities worked full or part time, compared to 78{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the general population in the same age group. The unemployment rate among adults with disabilities is high in both strong and weak economic times.

“The MA AT Loan Program puts technology within the reach of many more people,” Luciano continued. “It enables them to become active participants at school, at home, at work and in the community.”

Not all of the program’s loan requests come from people with credit difficulties. Belchertown resident Sally Dodge is blind and works as a receptionist at the Stavros Independent Living Center in Amherst, which is an access site for the loan program (see accompanying box.)

Dodge has impeccable credit but needed some additional funds to purchase upgraded software and an ergonomic computer keyboard. Her family has since paid off her loan, but she credits the loan program with enabling her to make the initial purchase.

“All that was possible because of the loan,” she said.
Dodge is not alone in her praise for the loan program. In the past, the bright, friendly and outgoing Williams had to rely on other people to take notes for her and create to-do lists. Now she uses her new laptop to do all that and more – she works on course assignments, uses the calculator, accesses the Internet for research, and E-mails her friends.

Her new computer was helpful in the courses Williams took at home this summer, and she’s using it to research colleges and create online college applications. She is considering a career in Web design.

Williams is grateful for the new opportunities the MA AT Loan Program offers to people with disabilities who ordinarily cannot get loans. “It opens the door for a lot of people,” she said.

“This is the best program,” she added. “It has helped me go to school. It’s opened up a whole other world for me.”

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