CATS adds Marion office to help the region’s children | Community

Stephanie Porter-Nichols | Smyth County News & Messenger

Southwest Virginia’s youngest residents with disabilities now have an experienced advocate helping fill in the gaps to get them access to assistive devices.

Gardner Umbarger is serving as the program manager of a new office of Children’s Assistive Technology Service (CATS). Thanks to the help of Emory & Henry College, the office is on the Marion campus of the School of Health Sciences. It will work with early intervention programs led by four community services boards in Southwest Virginia: Cumberland Mountain, Mount Rogers, Dickenson County, and Highlands. They will also work with other practitioners and medical professionals to provide them with assistive technology devices and technical assistance to support the development of infants and toddlers and their families.

While CATS especially targets children from birth to 3 years old, Umbarger said that devices can be available for youngsters up to 21 years old.

As the program directly assists children with disabilities, students in multiple College of Health Sciences programs are expected to gain experience and knowledge. Right now, Umbarger said they’re helping him clean and refurbish donated equipment. Over time, he said, the students will take over many of the office’s day-to-day duties.

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Gardner Umbarger, the Children’s Assistive Technology Service (CATS) program manager, shows a positioning chair and desk now awaiting cleanup on the Emory & Henry Marion campus. The chair would cost about $5,000, but CATS works to provide tools to infants and toddlers in need.

Stephanie Porter-Nichols/Smyth County News & Messenger

Among Umbarger’s first tasks was to apply for grant funding. Last week, the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities (VBPD) announced that it had awarded the local CATS office $41,000.

“The Board is excited to work with Children’s Assistive Technology Service to support the assistive technology needs of the infants and toddlers in Southwest Virginia,” said Teri Morgan, the board’s executive director, in a press release.

CATS Interim Executive Director John Naples said in the release, “The program being funded will help fill a need in Southwest Virginia to assist families with providing their child the mobility, positioning, and other forms of assistive technologies necessary to meet the unique needs of their individual child.”

“This project serves as another tool for Early Intervention and families to have equipment readily available that could impact children with disabilities programs educational needs and future productivity goals,” he continued. “CATS is truly thankful for the opportunity to enhance the lives of children with disabilities in the Southwest Virginia area.”

The Marion office is the fourth in Virginia. The other offices are in Roanoke, Richmond and Hampton Roads.

With the grant, Umbarger said the Marion office can help augment the work of the area Community Service Boards. However, he said, the grant’s goal is to support families and allow the office to buy additional equipment.

Umbarger explained that assistive devices can range from wheelchairs and shower/bath chairs to a vibrating neck shawl that provides sensory input. A dog that barks and moves can also stimulate children with certain disabilities as can learning to use a round switch to prompt an object to work. Sensory technology is especially important for children with autism, he noted.

Higher technology devices, Umbarger explained, can help children learn to communicate. For instance, if a child presses a symbol, which generates the words “I’m hungry,” and then gets food, he or she can learn about communication.

Speech-generating tools can help youngsters learn how to create a sentence.

Other devices can support basic daily living activities such as feeding, bathing, dressing and toileting.

The importance of the work isn’t new to Umbarger. The former special education teacher and teacher educator earned his doctorate in a related field.

Now retired after 35 years, he’s donating his time and skills to CATS

As the students assume more of the program’s duties, Umbarger said he’ll guide them. He acknowledged it benefits him to stay engaged with young people.

Umbarger’s wife teaches on the campus and he’s also been known to serve as a visiting lecturer.

As he did the research and math, Umbarger was surprised by the percentage of Southwest Virginia children living in poverty. When he calculated the average, he found it to be a third of the region’s children.

While Medicaid does cover assistive technology, Umbarger said it can take months if not years for approval to come through in some cases. He hopes to fill in the gaps in that area too.

He did note that a child’s therapist or physician must order equipment, which helps ensure that it’s appropriate and fits the child.

Umbarger also hopes that families, therapy practices and even schools that have gently used assistive technology equipment that’s no longer needed will consider donating it to CATS for reuse.

E&H has allowed Umbarger and CATS to set up an office on the Marion campus near the Mel Leaman Free Clinic. An early grant allowed them to install a ramp to create better access to the building.

Umbarger is achieving about CATS’ growing impact in this region and believes that it will help children with disabilities a better quality of life.

To learn more about the program and how to participate, interested individuals may contact Umbarger at 540-484-3125 or or visit for additional information.

The VBPD serves as the Developmental Disabilities Council for the commonwealth.


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