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Susan Tachau

Cofounder and CEO, Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation

“Find your passion. If you find something you really care about, it will fuel you. When you find your passion, you will keep going on that path and you will make the world a better place.”

In 1998, I cofounded the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), a nonprofit organization that provides education and financing to individuals with disabilities and seniors to acquire assistive technology (AT) devices that improve the quality of their lives. PATF has provided loans worth $41 million to more than 4,000 Pennsylvanians, most of whom would not be able to get loans from traditional banks.

The problem I’m trying to solve

The 1.7 million people with disabilities in Pennsylvania face many challenges, including obtaining employment, accessing transportation, communicating effectively, and finding accessible housing. AT devices — adapted vans, wheelchairs, hearing aids and smart-home technology — can make it possible for many to surmount these challenges, but there are numerous barriers to acquiring them.

Health insurance covers only a portion of AT devices. Other funding options have strict eligibility requirements, lengthy application processes and long waiting lists. Paying for these devices out of pocket is often not an option. PATF helps people acquire AT by providing no-interest and low-interest loans without fees for the purchase of AT, as well as information about other funding resources.

PATF staff do the underwriting for our loans, determining whether borrowers have the ability and willingness to repay. Because of this careful process, the default rate on our loans is very low, only 1.8 percent. We don’t look at typical credit scores, because most of our applicants use the cash economy, but instead develop relationships with them so we can understand their lives. And we report every repayment to the credit bureaus, which allows borrowers to establish good credit. PATF loans have helped individuals to live on their own, earn a living, stay in their homes as they age, and hear their grandchildren.

The moment that sparked my passion

My first child, Michael, was born 12 weeks early and, as a result, has cerebral palsy. Since the day he was born, gaining access to medical care, therapy, equipment, schooling and housing has often been a nightmare. As the policy director for the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, I advocated for the federal Assistive Technology Act, which supports alternative financing programs (AFPs). In starting Pennsylvania’s AFP, I wanted to create an organization that would tear down barriers for people with disabilities, not create them.

What I wish other people knew

In a 2016 study we commissioned to determine how our program had affected borrowers’ lives, they reported that their quality of life was twice as high as before they received their assistive technology. More than 80 percent said they participated in more activities of their choice and they reported an average of eight extra hours per week of quality time spent with their family and friends. One of these borrowers was a musician named Tom, who is blind and low-income. His PATF loan for a computer with specialized recording software has allowed him to earn money as a freelance musician. We gave a hearing-aid loan to someone who was 99 because she wanted to hear for her 100th birthday party — and she repaid it!

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Find your passion. If you find something you really care about, it will fuel you. My children say that I work all the time, but I don’t mind because I know I’m making a difference. When you find your passion, you will keep going on that path and you will make the world a better place.

Why my approach is unique

PATF is the only organization in Pennsylvania that focuses exclusively on helping people with disabilities acquire AT devices, and we are by far the largest AFP in the nation. PATF has also been very creative in finding additional funding. When our lending capital reserves ran low, we became a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and began winning grants from the CDFI Fund. PATF is the first AFP to be so designated and is the only CDFI in Pennsylvania that makes consumer loans to people with disabilities. Over the years, others have followed our lead, and we’ve provided technical assistance to other AFPs and CDFIs and helped establish or expand AFP programs in several other states.