This isn’t typical—disabilities never are. Five of the eight people in Wendy Davis’ Malvern household struggle to hear. Davis isn’t one of them, so she’s making the most of that advantage. She works as an account manager for CaptionCall in eastern Pennsylvania, a federal no-cost phone-captioning service.
Davis is also a board member with the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation. The King of Prussia-based nonprofit provides statewide financing opportunities, education and advocacy to older adults and people with disabilities, helping clients acquire assistive technology devices and services. In two-plus decades, PATF has procured $42 million in loans for 4,000 people.
In the Davis family, husband Evan, 24-year-old daughter Caroline and 21-year-old son Clark use assistive technology—though none of it has been costly enough to require a loan. But other families have needs, and most people are unfamiliar with PATF. “I encounter the same thing with CaptionCall,” Davis says. “It’s no-cost, but no one knows it exists. Then, when they find out it’s free, they’re skeptical: They ask, ‘How can that be?’”
Enter Bala Cynwyd’s Susan Tachau. PATF’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer is one of five recent recipients of an AARP Purpose Prize. The unrestricted $50,000 grant includes a year of technical support aimed at increasing the number of people PATF serves. Tachau, 66, has her own story to tell. Her 38-year-old son, Michael, was born prematurely with cerebral palsy. She also gave birth to a premature baby girl who died. “That was rougher than having a kid with a disability,” she says.
She and husband Mark, a Temple University law professor, later adopted two daughters. Michael was 7 when they moved to Philadelphia and Tachau became part-time policy director at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. Though it all, the couple experienced the ups and downs of parenting a child with a disability.
When the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 was reauthorized, it included a new section designed to fill funding gaps for acquiring assistive technology, so-called Alternative Financing Programs. Once there was a path to non-traditional lenders, Tachau came up with PATF, a program that could help people with disabilities, many of whom might have lower incomes and credit problems. State and federally certified, PATF is one of 42 Alternative Financing Programs throughout the United States.
Two of the Davis children were born with hearing loss. It hasn’t held them back. Caroline is working on her doctorate in occupational therapy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and Clark is a third-year Rochester Institute of Technology bioengineering major. Conestoga High School grads, both played four years of ice hockey there. Five years ago, their dad suffered sudden deafness— most likely a result of Lyme disease. He has an implant in his right ear and a hearing aid in his left.
Tachau knows the power of assistive technology. Michael attended Lower Merion High School in a wheelchair and went skiing and ice skating using assistive technology. Tachau also knows social policy from work on Capitol Hill. But she had to teach herself the finance side.
Today, PATF offers three products, including a zero-interest loan of up to $7,000, another capped at $60,000 and a third of up to $35,000. The latter two have flat 3.75 percent interest rates. Loan requests have changed over time. In the past, requests for hearing aids, wheelchairs and scooters were popular. Today, the sky’s the limit—vehicular adaptations, ramps, yard fencing for a child with autism, adaptive farm equipment. “We don’t tell you what to get and from whom,” Tachau says. “You come to us with the device you want and a vendor. You figure out what works for you—which is different from other organizations, where you’re told what to get and where to get it. This is about consumer choice and control. Who am I to tell you what you need?”
Perhaps that explains why PATF’s loan default rate is incredibly low—less than 2 percent. “We’re absolutely spoiled rotten to have Susan,” Davis says. “Not all states have this program, and other states have come to us, asking, ‘How the heck do you do this?’ Susan is driven and connected. She’s an amazing leader, and from a board perspective, it’s mindboggling how much she gets done.”
With the AARP award, Tachau plans to get even more done. First, she hopes to use the $50,000 to be a good neighbor and establish a fund to help those in bordering states like Ohio and West Virginia create their own PATF-like entities. She also wants to work with Congress to expand support for alternative financing programs. “One of the models we’re considering is consulting assistance,” Davis says. “It takes time and resources, but we’re willing. And the board agrees that it’s the right thing to do.”
With AARP’s technical assistance, Tachau mostly wants help with providing diversity and sensitivity training to staff. As an example: wheelchair-bound is offensive, wheelchair user isn’t. “I have a son with CP, but he’s not ‘cerebral palsied,’” notes Tachau.
Now 38, Michael works part-time and owns the Merion Station home he shares with two housemates who also have disabilities. “I know these devices make a difference,” says his mother, who lives a mile away. “He has a good life, but in the world he was born into in 1982, we didn’t know what it meant to have a family member with a disability.”
Now that AARP has recognized PATF, the stage is set. “One of our barriers has always been getting people to know we exist,” Tachau says. “With the award, we can do more of what we do for more Pennsylvanians and for more people who live around us.”