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An energy efficient LED light bulb. Credit: Marco Verch / Flickr / Creative Commons

While the person-to-person activities are on hold, program administrators are developing self-install instructions.

An Illinois program to help older adults and people with disabilities install new energy-saving technology and provide job training for high school students has gone virtual for now, with advocates hoping to resume once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

The Smart Technology Mentors Program was designed as a 12-month pilot running from January to December of this year. But the pandemic required significant changes, including eliminating onsite visits, focus groups, and other forms of person-to-person contact. The new target launch date is January 2021, contingent on sufficient suppression of the coronavirus and the acquisition of additional sponsorship and funding, according to Doug Newman, founder and executive director of the Smart Self Reliance Initiative (directed by the Seniors Independent Living Collaborative), which administers the program.

“COVID-19 had a major impact on our work,” Newman said. “In the interim, we are developing a series of self-install instructional videos on the most useful smart home devices for independent living that we’ll post on the Smart Self Reliance website, along with an informative video on utility smart pricing programs in Illinois. Once the videos are posted, we’ll mail notices to targeted consumers of their availability, and the opportunity to win a free Google digital home assistant as an inducement to use these new resources.”

The Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation, which also supports the Energy News Network, provides funding for the program, along with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and Google.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, the pilot program will resume as originally planned. If successful, the pilot program could provide a model to provide these types of services across the United States, according to Newman.

Six non-residential nonprofit centers for independent living, which promote independence for people with disabilities, will participate. Participating centers, located in northern, central and southern Illinois, will select a coordinator to recruit two school districts, with one or two high schools in each district. Between 5 and 10 students from each school will be chosen to participate — for a maximum of 240 students. Selected students will be trained in customer engagement and interactions with older adults and disabled individuals, as well as in the installation of smart devices including light bulbs, exterior cameras, smoke alarms, and others. 

During each in-home assistance visit, student mentors and supervisors will assist residents in setting up online accounts with their utility to enable them to take advantage of available smart pricing programs. Prospective consumers are adults age 65 and older and adults of any age with disabilities living within a 10-mile radius of participating centers, along with referrals from recreation centers for older adults, rehabilitation hospitals and advocacy organizations within those same communities. The only eligibility requirement for the installation assistance is that the residence has Internet service and that the resident has possession of the device to be installed. Services will be provided free of charge to consumers.

Participating high schools for the pilot program will be located in communities served by participating Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living members. Efforts will be made to ensure that pilot participants represent urban, suburban and rural communities across the state. Students with and without disabilities are eligible to participate in the pilot, according to Newman.

Students selected for the program will undergo four hours of in-class, hands-on training, designed to give them an understanding of the independent living needs of older adults and people with disabilities and an overview of smart devices that support independent living. Students will also receive practical instruction on smart device programming and troubleshooting and proper conduct for service visits.

Students will receive a stipend of $15 for each completed two-hour home visit and the potential to earn community service credit. Participants will also be listed on the Smart Self Reliance Clearinghouse if they wish to continue working with older adults and people with disabilities beyond the pilot project period.

Grant funds originally allocated for service calls and other in-person activities were redirected to producing online content and laying the groundwork for the resumption of the original pilot format. Once the pilot program has been completed, services will be scaled up to cover more communities throughout the state. While this aspect of the program is presently on hold, this is a temporary situation, according to Newman.

During the pandemic, Newman said, his organization and its collaborators (the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living , the Progress Center for Independent Living and the Illinois Assistive Technology Program) developed the logistics and tools to be used for the in-person mentor training and in-home service delivery when it’s once again safe to do so.

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Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.