Three Things Every Assistive Technology User Should Know


The term "assistive technology" refers to any object or machine that helps a person with a disability in some activity of daily living. People who work with assistive technology often call it "AT" for short. It includes:

  • Things that help people get from one place to another, like wheelchairs, walkers, and leg braces, and crutches. So are things like wheelchair ramps, wheelchair lifts, and grab bars. Grab bars are handles mounted to a wall that help a person get from a wheelchair to a toilet or shower, and back again. A wheelchair lift helps a person using a wheelchair to get in and out of a van or other vehicle.
  • Things that help people use computers. Today there are all kinds of AT devices that make computers easier for people with disabilities to use. There are screens that magnify everything they show so a person with low vision can read them. There are computer programs that allow a person to speak commands instead of typing them on the computer keyboard. There are even "screens" that people who are blind can "read" with their fingers.
  • Communication devices: There are devices for people who cannot speak. In most cases, the user pushes buttons or uses a computer mouse to make the device produce speech. The famous scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking uses one of these.
  • Things that help with important bodily functions. This includes devices that help a person breathe, eat, use the bathroom, or care for themselves.

You Have Rights If Medicaid Won't Pay For What You Need
Most people with a disability who need AT devices get them paid for by one of these:

  • Medicaid (also called "Title 19"),
  • Medicare Part B, or private insurance.
  • Most low-income Iowans get their AT through Medicaid, so that's what we'll talk about here. Medicaid pays for a lot of different AT devices, though Medicaid does not use the term "AT." In Medicaid law, AT is called "durable medical equipment" or DME. In Iowa, the Medicaid program is run by the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS). If DHS says you can't have the AT device you need, remember this:
    • You have the right to appeal DHS's decision to an administrative law judge or ALJ. An ALJ is a person who works for another state agency, the Department of Inspections and Appeals. The ALJ will hear your case almost exactly the way a regular judge would. You may bring an attorney if you want one. You may present witnesses, documents, or other evidence. You may question DHS's witnesses, and see any documents they are going to show the judge. If the judge thinks DHS is wrong, he or she will order them to give you your AT.
    • If the ALJ thinks DHS was right to deny you the device you are asking for, you may ask the director of DHS to review the case. The director may agree with you, or with the ALJ.
    • If the director of DHS agrees with the ALJ, you may file a lawsuit against DHS in district court. This is a special kind of lawsuit called a "petition for judicial review." In most cases, neither the director nor the district court will hear new evidence. They will only review what is in the file, which includes a tape recording of the ALJ hearing. You may ask to present new evidence, but usually you have to show that there was a good reason why you couldn't present it to the ALJ.

You Have Rights If Your AT Device Does Not Work Properly
A manufacturer who sells an AT device in Iowa must give you a one-year warranty. If they don't, Iowa law says you have a oneyear warranty anyway. If you discover during the warranty period that there is something wrong with the device, the manufacturer generally must:

  • Try to fix it.
  • Give you a "loaner" (or money to pay for one) while your device is being fixed.
  • If it cannot be fixed, refund your money or give you a new one.

Also, before an AT dealer can sell you a device that was previously returned by somebody else, they have to tell you. They have to tell you that the device was returned, and why it was returned.

You Have Rights When You File Your Taxes
There are certain tax breaks people who use AT can take advantage of. They include:

Federal and state income tax deductions:

  • Deductions are amounts of money you get to subtract from your total income before you compute how much tax you owe on it. If a person with a disability uses itemized deductions instead of the standard deduction, certain disability related expenses can be deducted. A taxpayer generally uses itemized deductions only if the taxpayer has more itemized expenses than the amount of the standard deduction. (See examples in box below.)

Other tax credits or fees:

  • Property tax credit. If you own real property (land or buildings), you probably have to pay property tax on it. If you are totally disabled, however, you might be entitled to a tax credit from the State of Iowa. You will fill out a special form and turn it in with your state tax return.
  • Motor vehicle registration. Motor vehicle registration is not really a tax, it's more like a fee. But if you drive a motor vehicle that has special equipment to help you get in and out of it (like a wheelchair lift), you can get your vehicle registration fee reduced. The Iowa Department of Transportation has a special form you will have to fill out when you register your car or van.
  • If you work, you might want to let your employer know that there are also tax breaks for employers who hire people who are disabled. Make sure your employer knows about:
  • The Architectural and Transportation Barrier Removal Deduction. This allows employers to deduct some of the cost of making buildings and vehicles accessible to people who are disabled. This is a federal tax break.
  • The Disabled Access Credit (DAC). This is a tax credit that helps a small business make building and equipment modifications and do other things to make their businesses more accessible to employees (and customers!) who have a disability. This is a federal rule, too, however the State of Iowa has a similar credit, called the Assistive Device Tax Credit.

There are certain tax breaks people who use AT can take advantage of. They include Federal and state income tax deductions. The 2010 standard deduction for federal purposes for a single person is $5,700. To see how the deductions work, look at two examples:

Example 1.
Bill has a disability that affects his mobility. He earns $25,000 a year as a computer programmer. Bill's disability related expenses:

  • Car Modification $2,000
  • Installation of assistive technology in his rented home $1,000
  • Physical therapy (not covered by insurance nor paid with flexible benefits) $4,160
  • Total Disability & Medical Expenses: $7,160
  • Only medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) are deductible.

$25,000 X .075 (7.5%)= $1,875
$7,160 (total medical expenses) - $1,875
(7.5% of Bill's AGI) = $5,285 Deductible Medical Expenses.

In Example 1 Bill has no other expenses that can be itemized. Bill will use the standard deduction of $5,700.

Example 2.
Bill has the same disability related expenses but he also is buying his home instead and has $2,000 of mortgage interest payments to deduct. Bill's changes to the home do not increase its market value so he does not have to reduce his medical deduction for the modifications. Bill's total possible itemized expenses are $7,285. Bill will itemize.

Iowa Legal Aid assists people with assistive technology issues. If you cannot afford a lawyer and have a legal problem in Iowa, call 1-800-532-1275. Persons 60 or over may be able to get free legal advice from the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans at 1-800-992-8161. As a part of the Assistive Technology Legal Project, COMPASS refers people with assistive technology legal issues to Iowa Legal Aid.

Last Review and Update: Sep 16, 2011

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