A new joint venture between a thinktank, a university and a charity could help ensure that future public policies on assistive technology are able to transform the lives of disabled and older people.
The Assistive and Accessible Technology (ATech) Policy Lab aims to bring disabled people together with professionals and researchers to design and test new public policy ideas and work together on research projects.
The project was announced by the thinktank Policy Connect, supported by Bournemouth University – which has a department that specialises in research on ATech – and Ace Centre, a charity which provides ATech assessment, training and information services across England.
It hopes to build on the aim in the government’s National Disability Strategy to “make the UK the most accessible place in the world to live and work with technology”, and the mention of the importance of ATech in Keir Starmer’s speech at last autumn’s Labour party conference.
Robert McLaren, director of the new ATech Policy Lab and himself a user of ATech, as he has dyslexia, told the launch: “We know that if we get technology right, it can be life-changing for disabled people, and it can bring the benefits of accessibility to everyone.
“I know how big this opportunity is, how high the stakes are in terms of getting the technology right, and having the policy structures in place.”
He said it was clear that ATech had the government’s attention, and that of Keir Starmer.
He told the launch: “We want to capitalise on that momentum and capitalise on that enthusiasm and translate that political enthusiasm into the fully-designed, evidence-based policy proposals and ideas that can then become the reform programmes… that will really transform people’s access to ATech on the ground.
“This lab is going to bring together disabled people and sector leaders, to incubate new ideas, strengthen and stress-test proposals, and generate evidence and insight that can really bring policy-makers to action.”
He said the ATech Policy Lab would hold interactive policy design workshops, undertake research and produce reports.
McLaren (pictured, second from left, at the launch) said he hoped it would help fill the gap between what technology can do and what people are able to do with that technology, and so “reap enormous benefits”.
Paul Maynard (pictured, second from right), the disabled Conservative MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for assistive technology, who chaired the event, said his group would work closely with the “exciting” ATech Policy Lab.
He said it was vital to be able to inform politicians “just how transformative this technology can be”.
Professor Annalu Waller, a disabled academic who leads the augmentative and alternate communication research group in the University of Dundee’s School of Computing, highlighted the importance of inclusive design, and building in training about accessibility and ATech into all professions.
She told the launch event: “Until we understand that everything we build and design has to be designed for the most disabled person out there, we will never actually attain the equality that every citizen in our country deserves.
“If we build something to accommodate the diversity of humans, we can develop bigger, more useable, more accessible products.
“If we have that philosophy at the base of everything we do, we can possibly move towards an era where everybody has access to education, work and recreation.”
Gary Bourlet, a leading member of the self-advocacy movement, said it was crucial that information about the ATech Policy Lab and ATech issues was available in easy read for people with learning difficulties so they can understand it.
He also warned that there were many people with learning difficulties who could not afford computers, and he suggested the government copies schemes in Spain and Belgium which have given free computers and technology to disabled people.
Piers Wilkinson, higher education policy and partnerships lead for the disabled-led social enterprise Diversity and Ability, and a commissioner on the Disabled Students’ Commission, said it would be “critical” to ensure that the ATech Policy Lab placed the lived experiences of disabled people as users of ATech at the centre of its work.
The minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, told the launch event that ATech can have “life-changing impacts on a disabled person’s life”, and “harnessing the potential” of such technology can “remove barriers and increase opportunities for disabled people”.
She said: “Too often… you can see technology being developed without taking into account the needs and preferences of disabled users.”
And she said that disabled people and those around them sometimes did not have “the awareness or the training or support that would be needed to ensure that ATech could be used effectively”.
She said the government was providing “significant support” in the development of ATech and to provide access to its use.
In 2019-20, government-funded UK Research and Innovation invested £58.4 million in ATech research and development.
Smith said it was “absolutely critical to continue to work together in partnership on research and design of evidence-based policy-solutions in this area.
“That will allow us to share knowledge and innovation but will also have the benefit of promoting the UK as a world-leader in this field as well as directly benefiting disabled people, which is our goal.”
She said there were nine commitments related to ATech spread across different government departments in the National Disability Strategy, which affected areas such as employment, design, accessible housing and the accessibility of private sector websites.
She pointed to the strategy’s pledges to improve the “skills gap in ATech” across government, and to create a new Centre for Assistive and Accessible Technology, as part of the government’s aim to improve its own “capability in this field”.
She said this was important because the government was “keen for ATech to be mainstreamed as part of the everyday delivery of public and private services for disabled people and also non-disabled people”.
But she had left the meeting by the time that Kush Kanodia, a disabled ambassador for Disability Rights UK, asked what her “next steps” would be after the high court found the National Disability Strategy to be unlawful, because of its consultation failures.
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