By Evan Lawrence, Staff Writer
HARTFORD — In the final stretch of his primary election campaign, Democrat Ned Lamont can be found in many places. However, on Friday afternoon you would have found him making an appearance in Hartford, taking a tour of the New England Assistive Technology Resource and Education (NEAT) Center at Oak Hill in the Blue Hill section of Hartford.
Originally a school for the blind, Oak Hill is an institution that has been around since 1893 and now services people with a number of different disabilities, including intellectual, developmental and physical impairments. It is Connecticut’s largest community-based provider to people with disabilities, having programs in over 50 Connecticut towns,officials say.
The key term there is “community based,” according to Patrick Johnson Jr., ACSW the President of Oak Hill. Preceding the tour, Mr. Johnson explained to an attentive Lamont how the school of thought has changed over the last thirty years from institutionalization to a more effective community based living.
“People want their children at home, or living in the community just like everyone else” Johnson said. “The NEAT Center at Oak Hill is helping to make that possible especially with the recent advancements in technology.”
Bruce Stovall , the vice president of Oak Hill, began the tour by explaining more about these improvements starting with their equipment restoration and reutilization. Oak Hill repairs and restores used disability equipment and then sells it to buyers at a significantly reduced price, making the expensive equipment much more affordable for those that need it.
Lamont, who has previous experience teaching (including a friend with Lou Gehrig’s disease) got to see first hand how much the technology has improved. This included screen magnification, speech to text technology, and even a mounted computer mouse that responds to a reflective dot on the users forehead. This way a quadriplegic can move the cursor by merely looking at the part of the screen they would like to select. Or, in this case, a zealous Lamont can spell out “Vote for Ned” and briefly experience how difficult a simple task can be for a disabled person.
The final stop on the tour was a training session for the “Birth to Three Program,” which evaluates, identifies, and provides support to families with disabled children. Trainees with different backgrounds before entering this program, are physical therapists, speech pathologists, as well as some that had personal experiences with disabilities, and were now here to continue their future in this field. A future, however, that is very uncertain, Oak Hill officials said.
While Oak Hill does receive some money from charitable donations, 90 percent of their budget is from public funding. This means in recent years, the employees of Oak Hill’s cost-of-living adjustments have been less then one percent. Already burdened with the effects of inadequate funding, Oak Hill President Patrick Johnson said he hopes that whoever is elected governor does reduce their funding any lower then it is currently.