By CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau
HELENA — A total of $70,000 is available here this year to provide free communications equipment to eligible Montanans with a combined vision and hearing loss.
Money for the program this year comes from the Federal Communications Commission, with an additional $71,000 available starting July 1, 2014. The source is a fee on telephone relays collected by the FCC under a 2010 federal law to increase accessibility to technology for people with vision and hearing problems.
It’s part of the iCanConnect Montana, which is affiliated with the iCanConnect, the national deaf-blind equipment distribution program.
The funds will be used to buy often-expensive equipment such as iPads, Braille devices, phone amplifiers and screen reading software. They will be given to eligible Montanans, with program specialists available to train them how to use the equipment, also at no charge.
Officials estimate 3,000 Montanans will be eligible for the free equipment.
To qualify, a person’s family income must be less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s an annual income of $45,960 for a single person and $94,200 for a family of four.
A person seeking the free equipment also must have a combined hearing and vision loss verified by a doctor or professional service provider.
In addition, an individual must be able to be trained to use ”adaptive technology” that makes it possible to use telephone, computer or other communication equipment.
“People in Montana, and around the country, are still learning about this program and what it can do to change lives,” said Steven M. Rothstein, national program director for the National Deaf Blind Equipment Distribution Program in Watertown, Mass. “We just need to get the word out.”
Rothstein said many people who qualify for the equipment don’t even consider themselves deaf-blind.
Keeping people connected
“It could be that they already have hearing aids and worsening vision,” he said. “We have to make sure that people in all different categories are made aware that free technology and training is eligible to keep them connected.”
He was in Montana to work with local stakeholders to spread the word so more people learn they are eligible to receive the communications equipment that can help keep them connected to family, friends and the community.
Rothstein also is president of Perkins, the Massachusetts school that Helen Keller attended and the first school for the blind in the United States
For information about the program, go to www.icanconnect.org/Montana or call 800-825-4595 by phone or 888-320-2656 TTY (text telephone).