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July 18, 2023updated 19 Jul 2023 10:22am

UK government puts a spotlight on ATech to help disabled people – but is it doing enough?

A focus on assistive technologies forms part of the government's new Disability Action Plan consultation.

By Sophia Waterfield

A new disability action plan published by the government will attempt to raise awareness of assistive technology (ATech) in a bid to bring “life-changing” devices to disabled people in the UK. But experts are split on whether the government is doing enough to promote its use.

An image of someone holding their phone. The voice assistant asks on the screen "How can I help you?"
Assistive technology helps disabled people access society and employment, but is the government doing enough? (Photo courtesy by maicasaa/Shutterstock)

Presented today by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the government’s Disability Unit, the draft Disability Action Plan will sit alongside the National Disability Strategy. It will focus on the short term, with “practical measures” the government can implement to improve the lives of disabled people.

The national strategy itself was greenlighted this week despite opposition from campaigners who said the government had not consulted on the plan properly. Although it has been given the green light by the Court of Appeal, Disability News Service reports that its opponents could pursue an action in the Supreme Court to overturn this decision.

Consultation on the Action Plan will be open for 12 weeks, closing in October. Organisations such as Scope, the National Autistic Society, Business Disability Forum and others have been invited to contribute, as well as assistive technology vendors and disability and access ambassadors.

“From leading the way globally with assistive technology to improving inclusivity and accessibility across sport, travel and culture, the plan will also be important in setting the stage for longer-term change,” said Tom Purglove, minister for disabled people, health and work. The government wants to put disabled people at the “heart of decision-making” around the services it provides, he said.

What is assistive technology?

ATech is an umbrella term covering systems and services related to the delivery of assistive products and services. They promote the well-being of disabled people by maintaining or improving their functioning and independence.

But it can also come in the form of a website that can be navigated with a screen reader or a smartphone operating system that includes accessibility features such as dictation, says think tank Policy Connect, which published a report on assistive technology last year. “In addition, any technology product becomes an accessibility tool whenever disabled people use them as such, e.g. when someone opts to join a meeting via video call to manage fatigue or uses a generative AI tool to simplify the language in a document,” it says.

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There are more than 2.5 billion people across the world that need one or more assistive products. The WHO predicts that more than 3.5 billion people will need at least one by 2050.

ATech can also help increase productivity in the workplace. A House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee 2018 report argued that ATech could help people do daily tasks and participate more fully in society and employment. It also said that ATech was becoming “increasingly integrated” into mainstream devices, helping to reduce costs and improve accessibility for disabled people.

The public sector track record on ATech isn’t consistent

However, as reported by Tech Monitor, the Policy Connect report argues that the public sector has “failed to respond” to the needs of disabled and elderly people when it comes to assistive technology. It found that IoT and smart home technology were being held back by a “lack of ambition and vision” among UK local authorities and the NHS.

Public procurement processes were also found to be hampered by fragmented funding and a shortage of high-quality evidence. There was a lack of involvement of older and disabled people in decision-making.

Dr Peter Bloomfield, head of policy and research and Future Care Capital, told Tech Monitor at the time that the government had a role to play in connecting industries together so developers could meet the needs of users: “There needs to be a very clear engagement plan for the sector really, not just with users and carers, but with the technology developers themselves,” he said. “Everyone [needs to be] communicating effectively so that the best technology is the one reaching the market because that’s not really happening at scale at the moment.”

In its consultation document published today, DWP and the DU have used the opportunity to highlight the work the government has done for disabled people. Specifically on technology, it says that of 3,000 AI scholarships designed to help boost the talent pipeline, 26% of them have been awarded to disabled students.

The Department for Transport has reported to have made more than 100 updates to the Blue Badge digital service since 2019, aiming to make the online application process as easy as possible.

Experts respond to Disability Action Plan proposals

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) said that it was good to see the government taking more action to improve data collection on disabled people in the community. It says on its website that the UK government has “missing data” about disabled people in the community, which impacts the support they receive. “We’re campaigning for better data, to hold the government to account by ensuring they gather, hold and report relevant, accurate data,” it says.

When it comes to ATech specifically, opinions differ on whether the government is doing enough

Robert McLaren, director of the ATech Policy Lab at Policy Connect, told Tech Monitor: “As someone who uses assistive and accessible technology (ATech) myself every day, I know how vital it is to build broad-based awareness of these life-changing tools.

“I started using ATech at university but would have benefited from doing so earlier, at school – if only I and my teachers has been aware of the tech.”

McLaren says the organisation has recommended a partnership between the government, technology providers and public sector leaders to deliver “fundamental training” on ATech to teachers, job coaches and carers. It says that 250,000 front-liners could be trained by the end of 2025.

“The report showed that raising awareness and confidence among front-line professionals has a multiplier effect, as front-liners share awareness with learners, patients, and clients – unlocking the benefits of this technology for millions,” McLaren says

Rita Soni, principal analyst covering impact sourcing and sustainability research at Everest Group, says raising awareness of assistive technologies is not sufficient, and that the government needs to ensure affordability and access, as well as standardisation, was part of the agenda.

Soni also pointed to issues in the US, where disabled people struggle to access lifelong learning programmes. “A comprehensive Disability Action Plan must include livelihoods-focused initiatives with dignity and choice,” she says.

Read more: HMRC IT strategy puts focus on tech platforms

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