The British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) has urged the Government to maintain improvements in the way that communications aids for people with speech, learning and communications needs are provided in England.
Guest speakers at the annual general meeting (AGM) of BATA, which represents 65 leading suppliers and 120 third sector organisations and users of assistive technology, called for continuing action on recommendations from the Bercow Review1
on services for children and young people and proposals in the more recent Green Paper on Special Educational Needs.
“It is not a party political issue: no one would challenge that this is not the right thing to do”, said Anna Reeves, The National Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Coordinator and Manager of the ACE Centre North. “I am acutely aware that it could slip off the agenda and into the long grass. So we might need to engage our MPs.”
Andrew Gwynne, recently appointed Shadow Health Minister and MP for Denton and Reddish, argued that Government’s health and social care reforms would do little to help. “Far from making the health service work more effectively, I fear that we shall be left with a postcode lottery of care that will not serve people fairly”, he told BATA members at the AGM in London.
“Of course, many people here will be able to relate to the post code lottery they have already experienced with the provision of AAC. We need to address the confusion about responsibility for commissioning arrangements locally, regionally and nationally.”
Gwynne said that communication was crucial and that a continuum of services around the family was needed. “The current system is characterised by high variability and a lack of equity”, he added.
The Bercow Review, published in 2008, recommended that government should create a national Communication Council to monitor and support the report’s forty recommendations, and a Communication Champion to promote change and improvement.
Communication Champion Jean Goss2 has just stepped down at the end of a two year contract. In her final report she said that there had been improvements as a result of the Bercow Review and action plan “but much remained to be done”.
Speakers at the BATA event pointed out that the numbers of people who could benefit from AAC had been underestimated. “We need to start gathering data and evidence of the impact of AAC”, said Reeves.
“What we are facing is a rapid development of technology, but we are in a vicious circle in putting the case for better services. There is a lack of awareness of AAC and as a result an underestimation of need.”
Reeves said that government had been lobbied over improvements. “But one of the problems we face is whose responsibility it is? AAC has been batted between education and health departments.” She pointed to research that showed that only one in four regional health authorities had met their obligations to provide AAC.
“One objective of the coalition”, said Baroness Walmsley, who is BATA’s Patron and Co-Chair of the Lib Dems Parliamentary Policy Committee on Education, Families and Young People, “is to improve social mobility. The best way to do that is to help people achieve their full potential and give them an equal opportunity to enjoy their lives.
“Sarah Teather’s work on the SEN Green Paper will morph into legislation when pilots are complete - I look forward to that being rolled out across the country. There are many who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I am sure you all know the price of equipment in your sector. It is the value that it brings to a person’s life that you can’t put a price on.”
Barbara Phillips, BATA’s Executive Director, said “Those in the Assistive Technology (AT) sector already know what assistive technology can do for people” and pledged that ‘in 2012, BATA will work even harder to share that knowledge, raise the profile of assistive technology, and seek to increase public and professional understanding of it, so AT will be used more widely to enable more people to communicate, learn, work and live better lives.'
1 The Bercow Review - www.rcslt.org/about/campaigns/bercow_review
2 Jean Goss - Communication Champion appointed by the Government to promote the speech, language and communication needs of children and young people. She stepped down in December 2011.