On a chilly November afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending Arc Tank 2.0 at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum on UMASS’s Boston campus. This is the second year of the event, hosted by Northeast Arc (NeArc)¹, and loosely based on the tv show Shark Tank. Organizations that serve people with intellectual disabilities or autism — from around the company – are invited to pitch their innovative and disruptive ideas to a panel of experts. Seven finalists had just a few minutes to make their high-energy presentations, playing to the audience and the judges. Three winners went home with $200,000 in grant funding. The awards draw from the Changing Lives Fund, an endowment at NeArc set up by donor Steven Rosenthal.
Arc Tank challenges applicants to describe new ways to support people with disabilities, leveraging emergent technologies and creative approaches to address critical challenges facing the disability community. Back in September, I was asked to join dozens of guest reviewers in several rounds of application reviews. I reviewed and rated five applications as part of the process of narrowing down a field of about 100 applications to seven finalists. My round must have been a later one; several of the applications I reviewed were among the seven finalists. There was no shortage of great ideas. The event program included short summaries of about 40 applications in what it called the “holding tank.”
The event had sparkle and energy to burn. A local tv personality was master of ceremonies. The expert panel was tough, if not exactly man-eating great whites. As the sun began to set over Dorchester Bay, the winners were announced: the Arc of South Norfolk’s Autism Law Enforcement Coalition (ALEC), a program that features first responders training their peer groups in how to interact with individuals with disabilities; Stronger Communities Through Open and Organized Transportation (SCOOT), a Chicago-based initiative that uses a crowd-sourcing app to connect drivers with disabled individuals in need of transportation; and the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego, developer of virtual reality technology that simulates a range of experiences for people with disabilities like navigating an airport or going out to dinner.
¹Northeast Arc, serving the communities of northeast Massachusetts, was founded in 1954 by parents of children with developmental disabilities who wanted to raise their sons and daughters as full members of the community. By having the courage to challenge professionals who told them their children could not be educated and would not live to become adults, these parents created the systems that enabled them to attend public schools, develop friendships, reside in the neighborhoods of their choice and to earn a paycheck. Programs include Autism Services, Day Habilitation, Deaf Services, Early Intervention, Employment Services, Family Support, Personal Care Assistance, Recreation, Residential and School to Work Transition Services.