Assistive Technology (AT) already makes a huge difference to the lives of disabled people. It helps them live more independently and enables many to work. But it has vast untapped potential. Advances in technology mean AT is developing and improving rapidly. It could have a transformative impact on the disability employment gap and is, in turn, a huge opportunity to boost productivity. These possibilities will only be realised if employers, government and disabled people themselves fully understand and exploit its life-changing capacities.
“Assistive technology” once meant expensive, specialist equipment. Today, AT is increasingly mainstream, often as technology primarily designed for the convenience of all. It is integrated in everyday computers, phones and gadgets. It helps disabled people make phone calls, send emails and texts, and access the internet—all on technologies they often already own. The Apple iPhone alone contains a host of AT features as standard. VoiceOver reads out text from the screen on command, aiding visually impaired people. FaceTime enables remote visual communication such as British Sign Language (BSL). Switch Control controls the phone without touch; an invaluable option for people with motor difficulties. At no additional cost, these technologies open up work and society.
Too often, disabled people and employers continue to perceive AT as costly, bespoke equipment. Government has a key role in changing those perceptions of AT, not just out of compassion but in the national economic interest. But its role is not simply to raise awareness. Development of assistive technology is currently stunted by outdated attitudes. Tapping the potential of disability employment, and assistive technology in particular, are the epitome of the Government’s industrial strategy of creating a modern, dynamic economy. In its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, it has a ready means of offering financial incentives to support entrepreneurship. But rapid innovation and mass-marketisation of assistive technology will only happen if the Government makes concerted efforts to stimulate entrepreneurship and focus on driving forward advances in assistive technology. In missing AT from the “Grand Challenges” that Challenge Fund applicants must address, it has missed a trick. The Government should create a new Assistive Technology “Grand Challenge”. At no additional cost, this would permit funding the development of a broader range of assistive technology than is possible via the current Challenges. The Department should then bring together a consortium of AT developers and entrepreneurs, users, employers and support providers to bid for funding under this Challenge.
The cost of AT is a barrier to some disabled people improving their quality of life. Specialist AT can cost thousands of pounds. Even mainstream equipment—such as a basic smartphone—can be unaffordable for disabled people on low incomes. Yet a lack of AT can leave disabled people isolated—including being unable to access the internet and the many opportunities that brings. The Department should allow Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claimants to lease or buy AT using their award. This is the same principle used for claimants to lease cars. This would make AT available to disabled people who might not otherwise be able to afford it, at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The Department need not administer the scheme, but should ensure that whatever company does works in line with the principles of providing a public service.
AT could transform the employment prospects of disabled people. It can enable them to do jobs that would otherwise be impossible. It can also be vital to allowing them to demonstrate skills to employers. But unemployed disabled people have limited opportunities to learn about and use AT. The Department should train its Work Coaches and Disability Employment Advisers on how AT—especially the low-cost variety—can support disabled claimants, and should encourage Work Coaches to refer claimants to external specialist AT support. It should also encourage local AT support organisations to tender their services via the Flexible Support Fund.
Employer awareness of AT is an obstacle to disability employment and, ultimately, improving productivity. Helping employers understand what AT can do—often at little or no additional cost—would reassure many of their concerns about taking on and retaining disabled workers. The Department should develop this understanding by making AT advice and information a substantial part of its planned Disability Confident employer portal.
The DWP—and other Departments—should themselves act as model employers. But civil service computer systems are often not fully accessible to AT users. This is despite all Departments being signed up to the Disability Confident scheme as “Leaders”; the highest level of accreditation. The Department should raise its expectations of Disability Confident employers with regards to AT. It should introduce AT-specific qualifying criteria at all three levels. At Leader level, organisations should demonstrate a commitment to procuring inclusive systems. Government should lead the way by doing this for all new IT procurement from April 2019. It should also create a central standard for AT-compatible systems in government Departments and task Disability Confident with producing an annual report and “league table” on compliance to further incentivise improvement.
AT holds enormous promise for disabled peoples’ employment. But it is not yet advanced enough to replace human, one-to-one support in all circumstances—especially where people need full-time interpreters or support workers. These can be very expensive. The Department had planned to systematically apply a cap on Access to Work claims for all users from April 2018. This would have a been a mistake. Lifting the cap shows the Department is willing to listen to evidence. We welcome this decision.
But there is more to do in Access to Work. The programme provides vital funding for adjustments and support that help disabled people stay in work. Over half of Access to Work users currently benefit from funded aids and equipment, including AT. The scheme is not, however, as cost-effective as it could be. Some assessors remain wedded to recommending specialist equipment. Mainstream alternatives are often cheaper and just as good. Microsoft Windows’ magnification option, for example, performs the same function as specialist magnification software. The latter can cost hundreds or thousands of pounds; the former is free. The Department needs to ensure assessors consistently recommend the latest and best value equipment. It should review and amend assessor training, introducing new, structured professional development requirements. It should also review its support for AT training in Access to Work. Currently this is offered by specialist equipment providers only, further binding assessors to those providers and their equipment. The Department should introduce a new, general “Access to Work (training)” option. This would provide AT training not linked to receiving specific equipment, opening up the market for AT training and driving down costs. Some users would be trained to use technologies they already own, further reducing costs to the Department.
The Department must work hard to make certain that disabled people—in or out of work—and employers are fully aware of and able to benefit from all that AT has to offer. It must put AT at the centre of its entire approach to supporting disability employment and boosting the economy: from Jobcentre Plus to the Industrial Strategy. If it does so, it will discover an unparalleled opportunity to make real progress in closing the disability employment gap and resolving the UK’s productivity deadlock.
Published: 19 April 2018