Disabled people must be a key part of the levelling up agenda
Recent innovations make education, employment, transport and housing much more inclusive, writes Lord Shinkwin | Adobe Stock
Disabled people must not be left out of plans to level up Britain. Providing wider access to high-tech assistive products will help unlock social and economic equality
The fact is more of us are going to become disabled in our lifetimes, and more of us will rely on technology, both to remain independent and to have an equal chance of realising our potential.
As our population and workforce age, the incidence of disability, including mental health conditions triggered by Coronavirus-related isolation and stress, is on the rise. In terms of equality of opportunity, assistive technology, or AT – a broad category which refers to any technology that removes or reduces a disabling barrier – has therefore never been more important.
Recent innovations in assistive technologies have the potential to transform society, making education, employment, transport and housing much more inclusive. But are we ready to seize the opportunity to level up and thereby enable millions of disabled people to realise their potential and contribute to the success of our country post-Brexit?
It is not just wheelchairs, walking sticks and hearing aids. We now have access to smart canes that enable blind and visually impaired people to navigate their way around town; real-time transcription software that translates the spoken word for people with hearing impairments; and a food preparation assistant designed to help people with learning disabilities live more independently by instructing them on how to cook a meal on their own.
Consider the array of sensors, cameras and other widgets found on most standard smartphones and tablet devices. This Swiss Army knife of gadgets in our pocket offers almost endless opportunities for technology developers to create apps that mitigate disability in a wide variety of contexts.
The growth of robotics, artificial intelligence and other powerful new technologies is fuelling further innovation for disabled people. French engineers working with a young man living with paralysis have built the first robotic exoskeleton capable of manipulating all four limbs via the user’s thoughts alone.
In addition, Southend-on-Sea Council has recently acquired Pepper – the world’s first humanoid robot capable of recognising, and adapting to, the principal human emotions – to lead reminiscence sessions for people with dementia and an Asperger’s social group.
With proper development and dissemination, AT can be an engine of social and economic equality that boosts attainment in education and the workplace.
For example, studies show that ever more sophisticated hearing aids can significantly improve achievement scores for children with hearing impairments at school; allowing physically disabled pupils to use word processing and prediction software in the classroom can enhance sentence length, spelling, legibility and thus education outcomes.
These advances in assistive technology – and the growth of inclusive design features in mainstream products – have made tech even more pivotal to disabled people’s life chances. Disabled individuals want a career, not just a job, that matches their talents. For some, equality of opportunity to excel and realise their potential will depend on access to the creative solutions that only AT can offer.
I am encouraged by signs that government is starting to understand the huge benefits that AT could bring as the UK’s demographics shift. Last year’s EdTech Strategy published by the Department for Education included commitments to improve access to inclusive technologies in schools and colleges.
The forthcoming review of SEND education and reform of social care and, most importantly, the Prime Minister’s National Strategy for Disabled People, due to be published by Easter 2021, all point to a unique opportunity to harness AT as a force for change.
The Prime Minister has promised his strategy will be transformative. AT will be crucial to making his ambitious levelling up vision a reality.
Lord Shinkwin is a Conservative peer and co-chair of the APPG on Assistive Technology