Today is Assistive Technology Awareness Day, and we’d like to introduce you to a Minnesota Woman who changed the landscape of assistive tech for students with the most severe disabilities across the world – Cheryl Volkman Knight.
Until the early 1970s, children with severe disabilities were not allowed to attend public schools with other children. Kept separate and isolated, most never got official education at all. In 1972, legislation was introduced that would establish education as a fundamental right for people with disabilities. And on November 19, 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Congress intended that all children with disabilities would “have a right to education, and to establish a process by which State and local educational agencies may be held accountable for providing educational services for all handicapped children.”
In the early 1980s, Cheryl Volkman Knight was a preschool teacher in Minneapolis, working with children living with severe disabilities. She often found herself having to create new and inventive ways for the kids she worked with to engage with toys, crafts, and other activities. She would even put socks on their hands and sew rattles onto the socks so the kids could play along with music in the classroom. Inspired by a documentary she saw about electronic switches, Cheryl imagined that there could be a way to create a button, simple enough for those children with limited hand-eye coordination and limited mobility to allow them to operate electronic devices.
Through dedicated follow-through, and some divine intervention, Cheryl was introduced to two people who would help her idea come to life: Lee Hallgren of Honeywell and Jackie Levine, a speech-language pathologist. The three of them, along with a handful of very devoted volunteers from the preschool, put together a prototype of “The Big Red Switch” that would become the first assistive technology produced by their newly formed company, Ablenet.
Under Cheryl’s leadership until 2012, Ablenet became one of the top assistive technology companies in the world, evolving and changing with the times, tech, and trends to meet the needs of disabled students everywhere. Their product line evolved into many other devices, as well as curricula to use with those devices, making teaching and learning easier for all of their users. Ablenet’s vision of coupling assistive technology and consumer products continues on today, solidifying Cheryl’s legacy of inclusion and innovation with technology in education for children living with the most extreme disabilities.
To learn even more about Cheryl and Ablenet:
- Interview with Cheryl for Socially Driven Magazine: http://sociallydrivenmag.com/catalysts/how-a-lack-of-confidence-helped-launch-a-multi-million-dollar-company/
- Oral History Interview with Cheryl: https://atoralhistory.uconn.edu/videos/volkman.php
- Ablenet’s 30-year Anniversary video: https://youtu.be/uWgZXqOZRAU?si=fl4gS1hmomkkqK5U