Executive Director Barbara Phillips was invited to address the Global Business Summit on Advances in Assistive Medical Technologies held at the British Business Embassy at Lancaster House during the recent Paralympics. Here is an edited version of her presentation.
To misquote “Some are born disabled, some acquire disability and some have disablement thrust upon ‘em”.
That’s what we must never lose sight of. Or, to put it another way – as Robin Christopherson of AbilityNet did recently, quoting an American – we are all temporarily able rather than some of us being disabled.
No one who was with us earlier today at Stoke Mandeville can fail to have been impressed – and moved – by the way, time after time, whatever the cause, people can be brought back from extreme states of illness and disability to lead good, full lives again. Many of us are watching in awe as the Paralympians show us what they are capable of achieving.
No one should underestimate how much of that level of achievement, that progress from hospital to living life again, is down to the determination of each individual involved as well as the highly skilled, individualised, professional care that each person receives.
But we also saw something of how technology can play its part and we’ll be hearing more about how that can be a vital, integral part of everyday life to enable people to have the autonomy, freedom of choice and control that we all want in life, and, as adults, expect to have.
As we live longer, and overcome illnesses, or recover from accidents that would once have killed us; as more premature babies are able to survive, and babies born with life-shortening conditions are enabled to live longer; more of us are likely to have someone close to us who relies on technology to function, or come to do so ourselves.
So, what is assistive technology? AT helps people learn, communicate and live more independently. To spell this out a bit more: assistive technology is any product or service that maintains or improves the ability of individuals with disabilities or impairments to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives.
If you are interested in knowing more about the range of disabilities and products that includes, please do visit our website.
The British Assistive Technology Association (BATA), of which I am the Executive Director, was set up in 2010 for all those involved in the provision and use of assistive technology. It is a social enterprise, using membership fees to pay for its campaigning work on behalf of the sector.
We exist to improve public understanding of what assistive technology can do and to increase its use so that more people can have better lives. We champion the rights and interests of those who need assistive technology; provide expert and impartial support and advice to government departments and agencies; seek to educate and inform widely about the benefits of assistive technology; and promote British AT products and expertise at home and overseas.
Cradle to grave, all aspects of life – communicating, learning, everyday living, socialising, leisure, working – are being increasingly dominated by technology for every one. Much as some might deplore that or be not too keen to learn and some of us might not be ready to wholly embrace it; it also means multifaceted life is being opened up to more people with a wider range of disabilities.
Interestingly, the lines of demarcation between assistive technology and mainstream technology are becoming blurred. Who thinks twice about using an automatic door? Yet they were first introduced for wheelchair users. How many sighted people now prefer to use the ‘ask me’ facility on their smart phone? Or people who can hear perfectly well choose to text or email rather than phone?
Much of what is now available in mainstream software for i-Pads or PCs or smart phones can help people with disabilities communicate, learn and live their lives – but we are fooling ourselves if we think that standard provision alone, welcome and exciting as it undoubtedly is, solves problems for all disabled people, because it doesn’t.
The good thing is that this wide-scale acceptance and early use of technology is helping to make more people comfortable with it. In mainstream and special schools today, assistive technology can be found from the reception class onward, helping children of all ages and abilities develop literacy and numeracy skills and access the curriculum.
Through the use of special adapted keyboards, switches, eye gaze or gesture controls and voice recognition software, learning can now be opened up to far more children and adults, enabling individual potential to be unlocked that would once have gone unnoticed and undeveloped. It can also enable re-learning and new learning to take place and help adults who through accidents or strokes have to re-acquire skills and knowledge they once had.
Assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication technology can also help with rehabilitation by developing a sense of autonomy, reducing feelings of isolation, and opening up social life through direct communication and through access to social media and wider leisure pursuits. As well as adapted access to computer gaming, literature and films, are now available in a variety of accessible formats to meet individual needs.
As our UK experience has shown, alongside increased acceptance of technology generally and a fast growing range of assistive technology, it helps if there is supportive infrastructure.
Because of good early identification of barriers to learning and the provision of appropriate support throughout school years, an increasing number of young disabled adults are now qualified to continue into higher education. However, the greater intensity of these courses, with the increased levels of reading and writing required, can prove too much for some people with some disabilities, unless better support, tailored to them and their courses, is made available.
This realisation led to the setting up of the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) scheme, which enables students who have gained a place on a higher education course to be individually assessed and then provided with the support they need – human and technological – to complete their studies. This scheme is non-means tested – that is, open to all, irrespective of parental income.
In 2010-11, 5.3% of higher education students were receiving DSA, at a total cost of £142m. To put that another way, the total funding for higher education in England that year was well over £9m, of which DSA made up just 1.3%. While most of that 1.3% (£71m) went on personal support, a significant minority went on equipment (£50.5m).
That 0.5% of spend bought an awful lot of effectiveness. The equipment is owned by the student, so available to him or her 24/7, and usually comes with technical and other support for the duration of the course. 87.6% of those recently surveyed showed a high degree of satisfaction with the DSA scheme.
What’s more, according to a National Audit Office report, DSA leads to higher student retention rates. “Students receiving DSA are much more likely to continue their course than other students self-declaring a disability and, indeed, than students who are not disabled.”
The DSA has acted as a direct stimulus to the UK AT industry. Software, such as that produced by Texthelp, can be used on a standard laptop, enabling the student’s disability to be tackled without it being broadcast to others. DSA has meant the development of increasingly sophisticated solutions for disabilities ranging from dyslexia and other Specific Learning Difficulties (accounting for 45% of expenditure) to catering for a range of complex physical and cognitive difficulties as well as visual and hearing impairment.
As one student put it: “DSA has enabled me to study for a degree. Without DSA funding I would most likely be stuck at home and relying on the welfare system to support me. My degree will open new doors and career options. DSA has made it possible for me to reach my potential and be part of a wider society.”
For all successful graduates, the question is then, what next? How can I make use of what I have learned? What work should I do? To open up the jobs market to anyone with a disability, the Government introduced Access to Work.
Access to Work is a scheme which helps pay for the equipment and adaptations needed to enable a person with a disability to work. It also pays for a communicator at job interviews, support workers, and transport costs for those unable to use public transport. Open to those in a paid job, about to start a job or a work trial, or self-employed, Access to Work since 2007 has helped over 84,000 disabled people. In 2010-11, the cost was £105m but offset against that is the saving in welfare benefits that would otherwise have been paid to unemployed disabled people capable of working.
Not that the scheme is perfect. There are issues about the point at which the initial assessment is made, how long some have to wait for an assessment to be done, and the length of time before grants are paid. In addition, some argue that the AT provided for the job should be available for the disabled person to use in all aspects of their lives, 24/7, as is the case under the DSA. Also, each person who has been assessed is reviewed one to three years later and, in some cases, grants are not continued so, sadly, some jobs cease to be viable and the disabled person has to start the whole process again.
All these things have helped create an environment in which increasingly sophisticated and effective technological solutions have been encouraged. Many British companies now produce world-leading products that are both at the cutting edge of what is possible, and firm favourites with a very large number of users.
In an increasingly international market, innovative products and services are often the result of collaboration between many different players at home and abroad. To be successful, the UK assistive technology sector has to have positive and productive relationships with all involved – most importantly, the users themselves- but also educationalists, charities, providers and researchers.
University level research, for example, has led to technically innovative products being developed by commercial companies, such as the adapting of home games consoles for gesture recognition. In fact, the even more advanced mind control technology is already used in gaming. Perhaps in the not so distant future, people with severe spinal cord injuries or locked-in syndrome will be able to communicate and move through a combination of thinking and looking and the right assistive technology.
So, while the range of innovative assistive technology now available includes such ground breaking developments as these, it’s often the simpler things, such as switch devices, that have transformed lives.
Switch devices consist of large pads or buttons that can be made to respond to a light touch by someone who is frail or to a heavy thump if the user finds fine motor control difficult. These can be used to control, for example, lights or sound, or operate a computer.
There are also many simple but effective adaptations of mainstream computer soft- and hardware now available to open up communication and learning to a much wider range of users, whether those users have vision or hearing impairment, or physical limitations, or a more hidden Specific Learning Difficulty, such as dyslexia.
AZZAPT, for example, is software which automatically adapts the presentation of documents to meet the user’s particular requirements, and can be used on phone, MP3 player, tablet and a computer.
Or there is the deceptively simple approach taken by Dolphin Guide, a talking computer available in 15 languages, which has opened up computing to countless people of all ages and abilities who might otherwise be unable to use a computer or be overwhelmed or turned off by technology
Other examples of successful adaptations include the equally simple protective case and stand produced for the i-Pad which has made the use of it of much more practical for many. The Interactive Plasma Screen,, which can be adjusted to suit wheelchair users and those who cannot bend or stretch, and is unaffected by the user’s shadow or ambient light, so no need to close the curtains or dim the lights.