Community space for disability services, awareness opens on Main Campus

TechOWL’s community space is expanding its services for demonstrating and offering the latest assistive technology for people with disabilities.

The TechOwl Community Space at in Morgan Hall on Cecil B. Moore opened Jan. 17. | BRUCE CLAXTON / THE TEMPLE NEWS

TechOWL, Pennsylvania’s assistive technology program hosted by Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, opened its new community space for technology demonstrations and community events on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near North Broad Street on Jan. 17, ahead of its grand opening on Feb. 29. 

TechOWL is a federally funded program responsible for informing Pennsylvanians with disabilities about assistive technology, which are tools ranging from wheelchairs to adaptive gaming controllers to a page holder designed to make life with disabilities easier. 

While TechOWL has been demonstrating various assistive technologies for 31 years, this is the first time it has opened an accessible, public space in one of its 10 Pennsylvania locations, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Department of Education received in March 2023.

“This space is for Philadelphia and beyond,” said Alanna Raffel, an occupational therapist and TechOWL’s assistive technology specialist. “Not that I expect like a ton of people from Pittsburgh showing up in our space, but they could. I think it’s really the first and only space like this, that’s really focused on accessibility. Our number one goal is access and inclusion and to show people assistive technology.”

The staff set up televisions and adaptive gaming controllers, sensory toys in a padded corner and assistive technology, like bikes, that visitors can test in the space.

At a large work table and tool racks at the back of the room, employees and volunteers can make technology for themselves or for those who have submitted requests to TechOWL for custom orders, a free service that utilizes the space’s 3D printers. Larger equipment, like mobility aids, sits in the storage room. 

Any Pennsylvanian who requests new and used equipment can borrow or keep it through TechOWL’s Lending Library or Reused Equipment Program.

Raffel hopes to start hosting in-person workshops in the community space to teach people with disabilities how to make their own technology and 3D print it, how to repair wheelchairs and more. 

“Our vision in the future is to have this space not only for the work that we do but also for really disability-focused and centered activities, like adaptive yoga or sign language classes,” Raffel said. “I could basically relate anything to disability somehow because it can always be accessible.”

About 17 percent of Philadelphians have a disability, according to the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. 

Philadelphia has the highest population of residents with disabilities compared to other big American cities, according to a 2016 survey from the United States Census Bureau. 

“We all hope to age into disability because the alternative is not to age,” said Kim Singleton, senior director of assistive technology programs at TechOWL. “Nobody stays completely able-bodied. We’re trying to make Philadelphia just a little bit more accessible.”

TechOWL’s primary location was previously located on the fourth floor of Ritter Annex, but it was smaller and didn’t offer a space for community engagement. While the old space will remain open as a resource center, the new location on Cecil B. Moore Avenue is on ground level in an accessible, public area.

Those familiar with TechOWL have expressed excitement about the community space opening.

Martina Merlo works with TechOWL as one of their AT Champions, who use social media to share information on disability and accessibility. Merlo also has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects their mobility and vision. From glasses to mobility aids, Merlo uses assistive technology in many aspects of their life.

“There is never enough [information],” Merlo said. “The more we share and the more awareness we can bring to actually how simple it is to use these services will make a big difference to the volume of state disabled users.”

Merlo hopes the community space will help more Temple students and staff connect with TechOWL and its resources and create new relationships across the university. 

Jaime Bassman has been involved with TechOWL’s services as an occupational therapist in early intervention services and received accessible toys for her clients through its annual Adapted Toy Drive.

Bassman believes increasing TechOwl’s visibility will help bring awareness to accessibility issues able-bodied people and those without a relative with disabilities don’t have to regularly think about.

“One of the best things that they do is utilize social media to get the word out because honestly, if nobody knows that this exists, then they’re not gonna be able to access it,” Bassman said. “A lot of it is really marketing and getting the word out there to people so that they know because unfortunately, there just aren’t really enough different places like TechOWL.”

Raffel hopes the upcoming grand opening will also improve the space’s visibility. 

“[The grand opening] will be very centered on disability, obviously, with super accessible interpreters, and all kinds of opportunities to learn,” Raffel said. “And hopefully it’ll just be one stepping stone of many celebrations.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.