This sentence is illegible to some people, appearing as nothing more than a smudge on a screen. 

At least, that’s what it looks like to Phil Kirk, born with Laurence-Moon-Bardet-Biedl syndrome — a rare genetic syndrome that can cause blindness, learning disorders, obesity and diabetes, among other health issues. 

When he was younger, Kirk would have grabbed a magnifying glass to read the text, or asked a family member or a caretaker to read it out loud to him. But that was before assistive technology, and before Kirk became the first Ohio Tech Ambassador from Licking County.

Kirk, an advocate for assistive technology, lives independently with his dog, Kara, in a smart home in Heath. Soon, he’ll be part of a Tech Ambassadors event at Denison University called “Empowering Lives with Tech,” where Kirk and other speakers will be able to talk about how technology has improved the lives of those living with disabilities in Licking County. 

The event is free and open to the public, and will take place from 1-3 p.m. on Monday, June 17, in Slayter Auditorium. 

Born and raised in Elyria, Ohio, Kirk is an avid drummer who loves volunteering at his church and building things.

Phil Kirk works with technology that makes it possible for him to read. Credit: Bry Woodard

“The doctors told my parents I wouldn’t read, write or spell or live to get older,” Kirk said.

He proved the doctors wrong, graduating from high school and later trade school while owning several of his own businesses, including a sound company. 

“I’m going to be 56 on my next birthday. Do I look it?” he asked.

When Kirk was 33, he began to lose his eyesight. He had to leave his job and became dependent on caregivers and his family for help with daily tasks. 

“I couldn’t drive anymore and that was the worst part,” he said. “I loved driving.”

Years later, Kirk regained some of his sight. He sees in light and contrast and struggles with seeing things in front of him, despite having near perfect peripheral vision. Even with improved sight, Kirk needed day-to-day help from caregivers and family.

Kirk was introduced to assistive technology through Ohio’s “Technology First” initiative, a 2018 executive order that implements more tech into care plans for individuals living with disabilities to “improve their quality of life and how they can experience more independence and personal freedom.” 

With help from Amanda Brehm, his service coordinator, Kirk has been able to adopt assistive technology into his everyday life. 

“Before I had to use a magnifier to see my thermostat,” Kirk said.

Now, using a variety of different technologies such as the Amazon Alexa, a Ring camera, an Apple HomePod, a smartphone and a digital magnifier, Kirk can turn his lights on and off, control his home’s temperature, and get updates about his community. 

“Now, I don’t need anyone in my house unless I want them there,” he said. “I have technology that can help me now. … Zoom calls, timers, text, notes, reminders, alarms, podcasts. … You can do everything!”

Brehm serves as the assistive technology service coordinator at the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities (LCBDD) in Newark.

Growing up in a rural area, Brehm wasn’t always around technology. 

“We didn’t have internet until the end of my high school years,” she said, laughing as she recalled fixing the family computer and setting up the family’s new phones. 

Brehm never saw tech as a career, just something she enjoyed: “I always tell people: I never had formal training in tech, but I know enough to be dangerous!”

The process of finding technology looks different for each person. It begins with a service coordinator such as Brehm identifying the barriers that a person is experiencing. Then the coordinator looks for technology solutions and ways to offer remote support. 

Remote support utilizes interconnective devices, motion sensors, contact sensors, and humidity sensors to monitor homes, making sure they are safe environments. Kirk enjoys remote support because it allows him to live independently, while still having access to help when he needs it. 

“My parents take me to church on Sundays and sometimes make me a meal during the week. But they don’t have to do nearly as much as they used to do,” Kirk said. 

One piece of technology that remote support utilizes is the Portal, which allows Kirk to contact his provider without having to touch the device. “I just go, ‘Portal call so and so’… and then we talk face-to-face.”

Kirk also enjoys his new digital magnifier. Since Kirk sees in light, the machine allows him to adjust the contrast of anything he is looking at under the magnifier. It also can zoom up to 16 times the original size so he can easily read smaller print. 

“Amanda was just here the other day and I used it to sign some papers so I can see where I’m writing,” he said.

Remote support also can utilize software, such as “Be My Eyes,” which Kirk likes. The app allows a volunteer to see through your camera and be your eyes. 

“They help me read prescriptions or direct me if I get lost on a walk with Kara,” he said. “I can even have my family members be my eyes.”

In Kirk’s role as a tech ambassador and Brehm’s role at LCBDD, the two work to find new technology to assist people. 

“I work five hours a week getting paid to do research,” Kirk said. “And I go to seminars to inform people about different tech. I’m learning more and more stuff and I’ve even shown my support group a few things.” 

Phil Kirk is surrounded by devices that help him live independently. Credit: Bry Woodard

Brehm works with different vendors and workgroups, and attends summits to make sure she is aware of the new assistive tech that is out there. 

“We partner with a lot of tech providers and they also provide remote support,” she said. This way, users are able to receive instruction and help directly from the company that made the technology they are using. Though some products are off the shelf, Brehm said “some tech can be customized for each patient and even created with a specific person in mind.”

Though some tech has been cost-prohibitive in the past, Brehm said that’s changing, too. 

“The funding is there, the products are there, just support and implementation is hard,” she said. “There is definitely a learning curve and people have a hard time putting things into practice.”

Kirk got the opportunity to go to the Ohio Statehouse and tell his story on behalf of LICCO, an organization that works with the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities to find employment and social opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. 

“It was an honor to be there and to speak for people who don’t have a voice and who have challenges,” Kirk said. He was there to talk about increasing wages for support professionals and share how he uses assistive technology. 

Assistive technology has helped dozens of Licking County residents in recent years. 

Brehm recalled working with an older patient who never developed any spoken language. He had just received his first communication device at age 87, and when Brehm asked him to describe his feelings, he clicked a button and the machine responded, “I’m in love!”

“It broke my heart, but it also made me so happy that he was finally able to communicate using spoken word,” she said.

More and more technology is being produced and upgraded with each passing day. The ways that assistive technology can aid someone with a developmental disability are endless, and with more technology, there will be more ways to help.

“They even have self-driving cars!” Kirk exclaimed. “I’d love one of those!”  

For more information or help in acquiring assistive technology, please visit or call 740-349-6588.

Bry Woodard writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.