Grant fosters innovative technology to adapt disabled veterans’ homes

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For several years now, the Department of Veterans Affairs has operated a grant program to help disabled veterans adapt their homes. The program is called Specially Adapted Housing Assistive Technology. For how it works and where the money goes, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the Program Chief of Policy Jason Latona.

Tom Timin: Mr. Latona. Good to have you on.

Jason Latona: Thanks, Tom. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Tom Timin: And correct me if I’m wrong, but these are not grants directly to veterans for their houses, but grants to people that can develop technologies that could be incorporated into veterans’ homes?

Jason Latona: Yeah, Tom, thanks for making that distinction. The names are very similar between two programs. The Specially Adapted Housing Grant Program is to adapt homes for seriously disabled service connected veterans, while the Specially Adapted Housing Assistive Technology Grant Program is to foster innovation and new technology to assist our veterans.

Tom Timin: And what is a typical grantee then? Are they technology developers in information or in I don’t know, developing bathrooms and kitchens that are adapted to veterans and that kind of thing?

Jason Latona: Well, you know, the SAHAT Grant provides grant funding for individual developers and entities. So these are groups that are doing research, developing technologies and trying to bring the market valuable products and their innovations, which we hope will help our very seriously disabled veterans in their homes. You know, some products are currently available in the public market. Some are not. But I also want to specify that we’re not just looking for high tech innovation for the SAHAT Grant Program. We’re also looking for innovative construction technologies, products and methodologies that could also help. So there’s a bunch of different possible use cases that we look at for the SAHAT Grant.

Tom Timin: And what are some examples of things that have been developed in the past that have ended up in homes for veterans?

Jason Latona: Great question. Since 2016, when these grants started, they resulted in the introduction of several new products to the accessibility industry to improve the lives of veterans. So a few of those include an AI powered mobile scanner and reader application that’s called Supersense. That’s an application a veteran can download right to their phone, and it enables visually empowered users to read text independently. We’ve also got a really cool product. It’s an adapted a modular bathroom, called the Dignity Bath, which provides a safeer bathroom environment, permits home adaptations in a fraction of the time it takes to complete a traditional renovation project because it’s modular. We also have a robotic overbed that’s being used for beds. Now it’s an overbed table, rather, it’s for recliners, wheelchairs in bed, it’s called a Robotable that allows users to actually independently position and store mobile devices, or use a remote or accessible switch from their bed or chair. So we’ve had several products that have actually made it to market.

Tom Timin: And who develops these? Are they the traditional companies that like the bathroom fixture manufacturers, some of the large ones, or is it design studios? Or what does it look like the population applying for these grants?

Jason Latona: It’s all the above. We have educational institutes. We’ve had like Auburn University, St. Ambrose University, University of Pittsburgh, several universities that come in and different think tanks. We’ve had other corporations, public corporations that come in and apply. We have small innovative entrepreneurial developers that just had this one product they’ve been working on. And they run the gamut. Institutions for education, but we also have veteran owned small businesses and all different types of groups. And that’s one of the things we love about the grant is it’s attracting a whole gamut of potential awardees.

Tom Timin: And these are developmental grants, so they come up with ideas, and then what’s the process by which they become commercialized and available eventually, for people that need them?

Jason Latona: So the VA assists with obviously, the grant funding. So once we receive all the proposals, we evaluate the proposals, and we use a lot of subject matter experts on the VA side, who are specializing in assistive technology and new products that can help us determine which is most feasible, and that will have the biggest impact for our veterans. Once we award the grant, we kind of monitor the development through the developmental lifecycle. And we assist as needed, we will also provide contact to other programs that have to do with technology insertion in the VA. So these innovators, once they have a feasible product can speak to the VA about its applicability. Obviously, with R&D, a lot of these things don’t come to fruition, either. So we don’t have a lot of products that are marketable this time. We still have several companies that are working on getting it to market, but the up to $200,000 that these individual innovators get helped them along their way.

Tom Timin: We’re speaking with Jason Latona. He’s the chief of policy for the Specially Adapted Housing Program at the Veterans Affairs Department. And what are some of the gaps do you think in this type of assistive technology that you’re hoping to fill?

Jason Latona: Well, actually converting an idea into a product that’s marketable seems to be the most challenging thing, and these grants are no different. We hope that the money provided by these grants and guidance provided by our team can help assist them. But it’s not a guarantee. So it really comes down to how good the idea is, how talented the subject matter experts are on the awarded side and what their drive is to get this to market.

Tom Timin: But I mean, are there specific areas of technology that you feel need to be developed to help veterans with particular problems they might have?

Jason Latona: Great question. Yeah, these days, we see a lot of challenges with veterans who are dealing with different levels of blindness, to be able to live independently. The smart home concept is very big in industry right now. But it’s still so unique and kind of a niche market that it’s very expensive. So what we’re hoping for is to see more innovations in that area, the smart home market, that will actually drive the price down a little bit and make it more accessible for our veterans who are service connected disabled. Also, we’d like to see some more innovation in the adaptation construction piece. Just like the technology, adaptive construction is still kind of a niche market builders are still trying to figure out how to make money doing it. So we’d like to see more innovation that would make that easier.

Tom Timin: Adaptive construction, meaning what? What is that?

Jason Latona: The actual physical adaptation of a veteran’s home to make it accessible. So the little changes we need to make in veterans’ houses that will help them live more independently, whether it’s using voice command to open closed blinds, to unlock doors, more high tech appliances to make sure that veterans are safe, controlling the utilities in their homes, that type of thing.

Tom Timin: Sure, and I guess some basics like aren’t really technology, but just making homes with wider doors to begin with.

Jason Latona: Absolutely, that whole design innovation is a big deal. Are the front and rear doors accessible? Are the doorways wide enough and the hallways wide enough if you’re using a wheelchair? That type of thing, also is your bathroom accessible? One of the biggest issues we see out there is that a bathroom is not fully accessible. And that’s everything from the ability to have a roll in shower, to have a roll under vanity, to be able to toilet safely and independently. These are all things that we’re really interested in.

Tom Timin: It strikes me that a lot of these technologies have far wider application than simply veterans. Because as the population ages and becomes more infirm, or just there are more Americans and therefore more people with disabilities, these are universally applicable.

Jason Latona: Definitely, yeah, the concept of universal design and living in place and aging in place are big concepts these days. So these types of products that are applied to veterans that we use VA grant funds to develop can definitely be used on the wide open market. It’s not just something that applies to veterans, but it has a much wider applicability.

Tom Timin: Because I mentioned there are other agencies, health related agencies somewhere in the vast apparatus that is NIH and HHS, there must be programs looking at the same thing, do you collaborate with them? Or do you have a way of discovering who they are in the first place?

Jason Latona: We do. A lot of it’s cold calling in our part. But there are also large events and whether it is the International Builder Show and National Kitchen and Bath Shows or different kinds of industry outreach environments, we try to take the time to do outreach and connect with nonprofits and for-profit corporations, I like to find out what’s out there and what’s being developed. And then we also like to go ahead and make sure they know what the VA provides that can maybe assist with pushing these products into the market.

Tom Timin: And VA has just announced the SAHAT Grants now for 2022. Has that been held up because appropriations have not come through until now?

Jason Latona: No, the grants award pretty much is the same time every year. So right now they’re posted to Grants.gov. And we’re searching for proposals. We have several that have already been submitted, the cutoff time for fiscal year 22 is actually March 18, this Friday. And awards will be announced sometime in April.

Tom Timin: And then of course, there’s the veterans themselves. And if a veteran would like to get access through a grant to do his or her own home, how does that happen?

Jason Latona: The VA offers Specially Adapted Housing Grants to provide physical adaptations to eligible veterans’ homes. So if veterans feel that they have some kind of accessibility need in their home due to a service connected disability, then we really would like to hear from them. So the overall intent of the SAH Grants, to provide a better quality of home life for our most severely disabled veterans. And how these exactly takes shape is obviously unique to each situation just as each veteran and their needs are unique, and we do our best to tailor design features to meet the individual needs. But we also have a set of minimum standards which we call our minimum property requirements that we will deliver. So having freedom and safety to come and go from your house is one of those minimums and it’s required at the end of every SAH Grant project. So if you qualify for an SAH Grant, you can get up to $101,000 this fiscal year to make modifications to your home. To find out more, please search us on our website by searching VA Specially Adapted Housing Grants on any web search, you’ll be able to find us or reach out to your local veteran’s service organization or you can call us, we’d love to speak to you.

Tom Timin: All right, Jason Tony is chief of policy for the Specially Adapted Housing Program at the Veterans Affairs Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jason Latona: Thanks Tom. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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