NARIC and AbleData – A Shared History, a Shared Vision

In our occasional series, NARIC Director Mark Odum reflects on the history of NARIC and its role in promoting the work of the NIDILRR grantee community. As we approach NIDILRR’s 40th Anniversary, Mark looks back on our long and fruitful relationship with AbleData, the premier database of assistive technology.

NARIC and AbleData – AbleData and NARIC: like soup and sandwich it seems as though they have always been together. If that’s what you might be thinking, you wouldn’t be wrong. Here’s the story of how the two projects have co-existed for over 35 years.

Just a few years after NARIC was established as a NIHR* grant at the Library School The Catholic University of America, an enterprising occupational therapist, Marian Hall saw an opportunity to build on the success of the NARIC project to increase access to assistive technologies. It was the spring of 1980 when Marian approached the leadership at NARIC and NIHR to explore funding and support for her to organize the thousands of documents, product catalogs, and manufacturer’s promotional materials she had collected over the years and make this information available through a database similar to the database of research literature at NARIC. By October 1981, NIHR and the state of California put together a package to help set up the database and the framework to establish AbleData, a premier source of information on rehabilitation and disability assistive technologies.

Once that initial grant was completed in March 1982, AbleData was integrated into the NARIC grant. The databases had many similar data elements, and both were managed through the bibliographic retrieval system (BRS) and available through dial-up services and CD-ROM distribution. The NARIC information specialists and librarians assisted with the project, answering requests and entering data. Shortly after AbleData joined the NARIC project an 800-number was introduced and dissemination of this information took off.

From 1982 until the end of September 1984 NARIC and AbleData were funded under the same grant from NIHR. Synergy with public education and outreach activities helped blast both projects into the minds of people with disabilities and allied health professionals (especially OTs and PTs) along with social workers, counselors, advocates, educators, and students. The conjoined projects started publishing newsletters, joint-articles were written for government-sponsored publications, as well as publications from non-government membership organizations and trade organizations to publicize this treasure chest of much needed information. Each year while the projects were funded under the same grant, staff attended and exhibited at numerous conferences and made joint presentations. The rehabilitation and disability communities quickly began thinking of NARIC and AbleData as a single point of contact where they could go to collect much needed practical rehabilitation and disability information that made a significant and positive difference in the daily lives of persons with disabilities.

In 1984, NIHR underwent a reorganization and was renamed NIDRR. The NIDRR name was not the only change that took place. Under the Institute’s fiscal actions, NARIC was competed as a contract and awarded to Catholic University. AbleData continued to be funded as a grant and subsequently, it was awarded to Newington Children’s Hospital (CT) and Marian Hall continued on as the Principal Investigator. Although a few hundred miles apart, the projects continued to work together, even staffing conference displays, co-authoring articles, and continuing to make presentations together.

Then in 1986 the NARIC contract was recompeted by NIDRR and awarded to Macro International, Inc. They moved the NARIC offices to Silver Spring, MD which was close to Macro’s corporate headquarters. A year later the AbleData project competition was switched from a grant to a contract. Subsequently, Macro was awarded the AbleData contract and brought the project back to Maryland and located it within NARIC’s office suite. The NARIC and AbleData offices were back together again, sharing staff and space, and bringing much needed resources to the community. The next step was to set forth a plan to increase the project’s outreach and dissemination activities and take full advantage of the burgeoning world wide web’s communication capabilities.

Look for the second half of this article where Macro VP Dr. Louise Appell made significant personal changes to the leadership of both projects. These changes made a profound difference in how the NARIC and AbleData information was collected, organized, and disseminated. All of this came at a time when demand for information was ever increasing due to the disability rights movement exploding throughout all factions of the country and the promise of the Internet to share this research and information was becoming reality.

*The National Institute for Handicapped Research (NIHR) was the precursor to NIDRR/NIDILRR.

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