Connie Whitely and husband

Assistive technology opens the doors


When you combine Connie Whitley’s heart and talents with Connie Melvin’s support, then add assistive technology like an iPad, magical things happen – like a book!


Connie Whitley used an iPad to write her book, Finding Happiness. Pictured on the cover with her partner, Jim Nelson. Courtesy photo

Whitley is 58 and is a person with cerebral palsy. She is a client at Black Hills Works in Rapid City, S.D. And she’s now an author thanks to an iPad and to Melvin.

Her book is titled Finding Happiness. It’s clear that she’s found it.

The staff at Black Hills Works – chief executive officer, technology team and all direct support professionals – have integrated technology into every nook, cranny and program.

Whitley is a prime example. This woman became so comfortable with technology that she’s written her own book. She even snapped her own pictures – with her iPad.

Technology at Black Hills Works

Brad Saathoff, the agency’s CEO, has embraced the need for technology to better support those served by creating the agency’s first ever technology team.

He named Melvin as the agency’s director of innovation and future works. She is a hands-on director in a special direct support role. The technology team is an interdisciplinary team composed of staff from administration, residential and vocational services, maintenance and a person who receives support from Black Hills Works.

The team considers the needs of the person making the request, identifies practical solutions and provides training for the selected assistive technology. The client and his/her support team ultimately make the decision on what will work best for them, not the technology team.

The technology team also hosts an annual conference — Creating Possibilities. It provides DSPs and family members with best practices as they relate to the implementation and assessment of technology; information on cutting edge technology in development; real examples of how technology has improved the lives of people with disabilities; how-to processes for implementing technology; and ideas for funding technology.

Getting results

Whitley’s book is a result of the team’s efforts.

“I could not have done the book without Connie Melvin’s help,” Whitley said. “She taught me how to use the iPad and spent a lot of time with me and helped me learn how to take pictures.

“God gave me a purpose out of my disability, and it’s to help people find happiness in their lives and joy in their heart and to feel the spirit we all have within us. My mother was the inspiration for the book.”

Whitley is now working on a second book that will focus on other people with disabilities and allow them to tell their stories. It will also help parents to better help their disabled children. She sells her current book for $5.

Technology in action

Whitley isn’t the only person taking advantage of Black Hills’ focus on technology. Melvin passed along these examples of how they have helped clients use technology:

Sign language with  FaceTime or Skype

A woman who is deaf has many friends who use sign language. She decided to purchase an iPad and use FaceTime and Skype to communicate via sign language with her friends. “This has opened up the whole new world of the internet to her and has helped her to strengthen existing relationships,” Melvin said.

Games on the iPad

One man uses his iPad for everything from games/recreation to controlling things in his apartment (heat, lighting, blinds, etc). His severe physical disabilities require some specialized adaptations, so he can use his iPad, video game console, and other assistive technology devices. “These devices in conjunction with the adaptations have allowed him to attain a level of independence that was previously unattainable,” Melvin said. “He is still on the hunt for the best, newest, and coolest gadgets that will help him do even more on his own.”

Create art with the iPad

Another young man uses his iPad for many purposes. He is an artist who uses the device to identify subject matter as inspiration for his artwork (much of which is displayed and sold through the agency’s local gallery). He is so proficient with the iPad that he has assisted the technology team with teaching classes to staff and people who are supported. He has learned how to connect with friends and family, take online classes for his GED, and navigate through his community — all made possible by the use of his iPad.

“Most of these examples include iPads and other electronic devices, but our program helps people with all types of technologies,” Melvin said. “We have assisted with literally hundreds of referrals that have resulted in increased independence at home, work and in the community.”

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