The government's National Disability Strategy promises to be a milestone for assistive technology policy in the UK. Published in July, the Strategy serves up one hundred proposals from thirteen different government departments seeking to improve disabled people’s lives.
The Strategy has been criticised for not being ambitious enough, repeating earlier policy announcements and being released before long-awaited reforms to adult social care, housing, and other public services whose overhaul is necessary for many of its initiatives to have an impact. However, the government’s approach does have the potential to become the basis of genuine change.
Over the past few months, in addition to the TAPPI Inquiry, we have been taking part in the cross-party think tank Policy Connect’s Smart Homes and Independent Living Commission (opens new window), sponsored by Bournemouth University and Coventry University. The purpose of our Commission is to make recommendations on how disabled and older people can be supported to use smart home devices and similar technologies to lead healthy, independent and socially rewarding domestic lives.
Chaired by the former leader of Kent County Council Sir Paul Carter CBE, the Commission is overseen by a steering group of experts from the worlds of policy making, disability and technology including Liz Twist MP, the DLF (Disabled Living Foundation) and NRS Healthcare.
Assistive technology and the National Disability Strategy
Technology is not a silver bullet for all the barriers to independent living for disabled and older people, especially in the context of the wider challenges confronting the health and social care system. But we welcome the National Disability Strategy’s commitment to build on the UK’s well-established international expertise in assistive technology (AT) to help disabled and older people achieve genuine choice and control.
For example, the Strategy announces that the government will invest up to £1 million over the next year to develop a world-leading Centre for Assistive and Accessible Technology. The exact remit of the Centre is yet to be confirmed. However, the strategy outlines a number of possible roles for the Centre, including helping to pilot new service models for delivering technology in a “more joined-up, cost-effective and user-friendly way”.
Meanwhile the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is set to conduct new research into accessible house building practices – including making better use of technology.
The Department for Housing will also work with the Department for Health and Social Care to increase investment in the Care and Support Specialised Housing (CASSH) Fund and improve the delivery of the Disabled Facilities Grant, which funds home adaptations to enhance the independence of disabled and older people.
Finally, the Strategy states that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will challenge UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the wider research community to accelerate innovation in assistive technology.
We believe there is an opportunity for this challenge to have a lasting impact on disabled people's lives by investing in technologies and service models that will eliminate digital inequalities while promoting people's independence.
Tackling digital exclusion
Digital exclusion has many causes. People on low or fixed incomes (such as pensions) may be unable to afford digital devices. Technologies are often designed based on a profile of the typical end user that overlooks the distinct requirements of disabled and older consumers. The ever-changing market of products and services can make it difficult for people who have limited knowledge and experience of technology to choose which is most appropriate for them, especially when they are not able to get advice from family members, peers or other sources.
The UK has significant expertise in digital inclusion. For example, the Adjust Tech, Accessible Technology (ATAT) project led by The Open University, Northumbria University and Swansea University is demonstrating how co-production of digital devices with older people can lead to technology that is accessible to everyone. By bringing together older people from Wales, the North East of England and Northern Ireland to take part in a series of workshops, the research team was able to design user interfaces that made sense to all users.
Our Commission’s roundtable evidence sessions have heard many examples of life-changing practices across the country. These range from the AT Home campaign in the West Midlands that helped people aged over fifty years old to understand how assistive technology can support them to remain independent in later life to the innovative use of the Disabled Facilities Grant to provide technology to people with dementia.
However, these projects rarely influence developments elsewhere or are highlighted on the national level. When funding dries up, they are often forced to close down without the prospect of a replacement service or future support to maintain the technologies they have provided to the people they have assisted.
Building sustainable provision
The government must provide leadership to make sure that the learning and practices drawn from these pockets of innovation in service design and delivery as well as technological development are shared nationally. The research funds promised in the National Disability Strategy should be used to launch an independent living technology challenge that would build on existing expertise to invest in products and services that can meet the long-term needs of disabled and older people.
The challenge would help accelerate the development of emerging independent living technologies such as smart devices and related innovations in which the UK already has international expertise including in artificial intelligence and robotics.
Secondly, it would build on past experiences of service delivery to seed new types public, private and voluntary provision to help those at risk of digital exclusion to access technology, either by directly providing devices or developing new ways of navigating the commercial market place.
This would require research and development funding to be channeled to multidisciplinary teams from across academia as well as the private and third sectors. Funding agencies should be encouraged to prioritise the projects of teams that have track records of producing innovative and scalable projects, regardless of their seniority in a given field.
Projects should also be evaluated more clearly in terms of what they do to improve people's lives. Outcomes metrics should focus more on providing evidence of how they enable people to have control over their lives.
Traditional measures such as Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) have their place, but we also need pay closer attention to the aspirations of disabled and older people in the way we assess the impact of publicly funded initiatives. For example, innovators might be encouraged to examine the extent to which their solution has helped people to continue to live in housing arrangements of their choice or enjoy their preferred levels of social interaction.
Our Commission will make recommendations on how the government build on the UK's world-leading expertise in service design and technological ingenuity to make sure everyone can enjoy the benefits of the digital age.
Dr Hannah Marston is a Research Fellow in the School of Health, Wellbeing & Social Care School of Health, Wellbeing & Social Care at The Open University. Dr Marston is a Co-Investigator on the Adjust Tech, Accessible Technology (ATAT) project (opens new window). She is a member of the Smart Homes and Independent Living Commission Steering Group.
Clive Gilbert is the Policy Manager for Assistive Technology at Policy Connect. Clive leads the Secretariat of the Smart Homes and Independent Living Commission based at Policy Connect. He is also a panelist on the Housing LIN’s Technology for an Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation (TAPPI) Inquiry.
You can now register to attend the online TAPPI Inquiry report launch on Tuesday, 26 October 2021 (4pm).
The Commission is also inviting submissions to its Call for Evidence (opens new window) from stakeholders across the housing, health, social care and independent living technology sectors.