Chances are, you work with someone who struggles with something that affects their job. Chances are equally good that someone you work with could say the same thing about you.
“Everybody has some kind of challenge,” says Jack Mudge, CEO of Advancing Opportunities. His nonprofit, based at 1005 Whitehead Road Extension in Ewing, is built to help address that, at work, at home, and at school (and, actually, at play as well). The company takes what Mudge calls “a person-centered approach” to finding ways to blend technology into the everyday life of clients with particular needs.
That, for those looking to enter the workforce, is alongside some basics for landing a job — resume building, networking, job development, interview skills, on-site training, employer relations, and transition support, to name a few.
And if “employer relations” caught your eye, that’s good. Mudge says Advancing Opportunities wants to make sure that if someone with an obvious kind of assistive technology (say a screen reader, which reads aloud what’s on a computer screen to a worker who can’t see well) comes to the office, the people in that office need to understand that an assistive device will be part of the crew now.
Some assistive devices are actually kind of cool. Some software recognizes a certain voice so that someone unable to type can still write. There are also wheelchairs able to roll over rugged terrain — because life’s not all about work, and Mudge says Advancing Opportunities works to fit tech assistance into a person’s whole life, not just the office.
Assistive technologies don’t necessarily need to be high-tech, of course. Often assistive devices fit a lot more seamlessly into a work day than one might think. Think of ergonomic keyboards that create less strain on the fingers or wrists for those with carpal tunnel issues. Or screen clips that hold a piece of paper up where you can see it more easily while you’re typing in information from it, for someone with neck or back issues. Or screen magnifiers that blow up the text for someone visually impaired.
The overall point is, assistive technologies are supposed to enhance a person’s life in the various parts of their lives. It’s something Mudge and Advancing Opportunities’ director of community relations, Gretchen DiMarco, make sure to point out frequently — that their work is not just about work.
Consider how Advancing Opportunities works with dyslexic people. The old-school (and still effective in a lot of cases) approaches to helping with dyslexia include audio and large-print books. But anyone coping today with dyslexia can bust out a little Star Trek-level tech assistance with devices like the C-Pen reader — a pen-like device that rolls over text and reads the words into headphones or through its speaker. That can be used at work, at school, or in your room reading a novel.
The company also helps clients find the funds to pay for assistive technologies.
“Shout out to the state for supporting us,” Mudge says, even as he acknowledges the “gaps in funding” that still exist. To help fill those gaps, Advancing Opportunities does a lot of fundraising on its own. Mudge says the company tries to do that in a less stodgy way than some organizations.
“We do hoe-downs,” he says. “Without the black tie.”
The overall aim, Mudge says, is to use technology to make life as seamless as possible for people with any kind of challenge. And he is sympathetic in part because he understands what some people go through.
Mudge grew up in West Windsor, where he says, “I struggled with dyslexia. There were no services at the public school then.”
His parents — his father worked in market research for A.C. Nielsen and his mother worked in planning, zoning, and development for Robbinsville (then Washington Township) — eventually sent him to a private high school in Virginia for his junior and senior years.
Mudge earned his bachelor’s in history from the University of Montana in 1987. He came back east after college to work in various nonprofits, including the Boy Scouts of America and Seamen’s Church Institute in Philadelphia, where he served as CFO before joining Advancing Opportunities in 2004. In 2015 Mudge completed his master’s in nonprofit business management from Ellis University.
Industries with high use of assistive technologies. Autism tends to be a common reason why a person needs some kind of technological assistance at school or work. Mudge says that Advancing Opportunities’ autistic clients “tend to be on the milder side” of the spectrum, by which he means they are generally not severely autistic. But those who are on the spectrum do often need help — maybe a special keyboard with some keys switched to compensate for a certain dyslexic tic, or software that reads text and numbers aloud.
Of all the industries that have proven a good home for autistic people, though, Mudge says accounting probably tops the list.
“The accounting world has realized that some of the brightest people have autism,” he says. And the adaptations made for these workers are often more than just technology. In many cases, he says, autistic individuals can’t work more than a few hours a day. But if they have the right tech to let them get to it, they can often do more in three hours than most people can do in eight.
Assistive tech has led the way. Ever heard of Dragon? The speech recognition software? If you’ve ever spoken into your text messager on your phone, you’ve used something like Dragon. Well, that program started out to help people who were unable to type — and that dynamic is more common than you might think.
“A lot of things that used to be for disabilities are working for people with abilities,” Mudge says. Tech, in other words, has advanced in many cases because of an issue it was trying to fix for someone who needed to get past a handicap. For Mudge, the tech train doesn’t stop there. As eye and neck strain wrought by sitting and typing at keyboards and staring at screens has become more of an issue, he says, tech that keeps people from sitting there too long — speech-to-text software, for example — is poised to be a major solution to our growing eye and posture problems.
Mudge has already taken the idea to heart.
“I don’t sit at my desk very often,” he says. “I even learned to type on my phone by talking.”
The older crowd. New technologies are always a younger person’s game.
“Most entering the workforce today have extensive computer knowledge,” Mudge says. “Those who don’t have modified technologies.”
In other words, for those who didn’t grow up with a cell phone or an iPad in their hands all day, technology can be a little intimidating. This is part of what he means when he says that everyone has some kind of challenge.
“A lot of individuals don’t have the skill set for everything on a computer,” he says. The problem with that is that these days, even at home, “you almost can’t survive without the use of a computer.”
Advancing Opportunities does direct people to computer literacy programs, like LEAP, through the state and Thomas Edison State University. The company also hosts seminars, usually for older folks, who need to learn how to use a computer. And the thing to keep in mind here is, the ability to embrace tech and all it can do for you usually needs to be a self-driven goal.
“Tech has made it easier to get things done,” Mudge says. “Most people can learn it if they want to. Sometimes it’s just an adversity to it.”
Advancing Opportunities, 1005 Whitehead Road Extension, Ewing 08638. 609-882-4182. Jack Mudge, CEO. www.advopps.org.