Using tech for good

Houston nonprofit optimizes technology for special needs treatment and diagnoses

BridgingApps, a program backed by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, uses technology like iPads to help provide services for children and adults with disabilities — as well as for veterans — and their families. Courtesy of BridgingApps

When the first iPad was released in April of 2010, tech accessibility changed in more ways than mobile checkouts or on-the-go streaming.

The interface of the device is built around the multi-touch screen, which became a game changing component in special needs therapy and sparked the founding of BridgingApps, a program part of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

The program provides access to educational and therapeutic tools to parents, teachers, and therapists to use these mobile devices and apps to target and improve cognitive and physical development in children and adults with disabilities.

"I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities; my son was born with Down syndrome," says Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps.

Reat tells InnovationMap that she helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families.

"I was amazed at how quickly my son was able to do things independently with these touch screens that he was not able to do with traditional computers," Reat tells InnovationMap.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston organization was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation as part of the Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology Grant Fund, expand the available equipment used in the community technology labs with new equipment such as the TobiiDynavox EyeMobile Mini Classic Eye Gaze system that includes new software called Look To Learn and SnapCore First, and the AbleNet Latitude Mounting Arm that holds an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet and mounts to beds, wheelchairs, and tabletops.

The nonprofit offers three assistive technology services labs across the Houston area, in Bellaire, the Woodlands, and Stafford. According to the website, each lab has open lab days that the public can access without an appointment to explore a variety of assistive technology, including adapted toys and switches, specialized software and computer equipment, communication devices, and mobile devices and apps. Workshops and trainings are also available.

"The whole idea of BridgingApps is a shortcut, so that you don't have to Google search every day," says Reat. "It's basically the Yelp of special needs apps where you can type in a diagnosis, a skill, something you're looking for, and you'll come up with a video, instructions, and summary that helps people figure out what can help them today."

The organization was also awarded a $75,000 grant by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which, according to a news release, will help the nonprofit serve 50 individuals that are veterans and or current military as well as their family members through services such as digital trainings through app reviews and videos, face-to-face counseling and counseling via tele-health, especially for those without transportation or living in rural areas.

BridgingApps currently has a team of two full-time and seven part-time employees. The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser each Spring called Walk With Me. The next walk is scheduled for April 25 at the Houston Zoo.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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