"Assistive technology" once meant expensive, specialist equipment. It is now increasingly mainstream - like the remote or voice-activated technologies that control home environments and appliances – and is integrated in everyday computers, phones and gadgets. It helps disabled people make phone calls, send emails and texts, access the internet, travel, even cook—all on technologies they often already own.
AT—especially the low-cost variety—can support disabled claimants, transform the employment prospects of disabled people and be vital in helping them understand their own skills and abilities and demonstrate them to employers. Yet employers and disabled people alike continue to perceive AT as costly, bespoke equipment, and the development of AT is currently stunted by outdated attitudes.
Power to help huge numbers of people
Alex Burghart MP, Committee Member, said:
"Assistive Technology is a silver bullet. It has the power to help huge numbers of people overcome disability and get a job, transforming their quality of life.
And thanks to smart phones and modern software much of it is very cheap. The speed of progress has been so fast we've missed its full potential - it's time to catch up."
Assistive technology at centre of supporting disability employment
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"Assistive technology could be a real game changer for the UK economy, in many cases at little or even no cost. But DWP must vastly up its own game so that employers and disabled people—in or out of work—are fully able to benefit from all it has to offer.
If we are finally to make any real progress towards closing the disability employment gap and ending the UK's notorious productivity deadlock, Government must put AT at the centre of its whole approach to supporting disability employment and boosting the economy, from Jobcentre Plus to the Industrial Strategy."
The necessary rapid innovation and mass-marketisation of AT will only happen if the Government makes concerted efforts to stimulate entrepreneurship and drive forward advances – in the interests of promoting equality but also in the national economic interest. Government should now:
- Open up Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to lease or buy AT, on the same principle as is currently used for claimants to lease cars – again with no additional cost to the taxpayer. For many disabled people out of work, even the cost of a mainstream laptop or smart phone is out of reach, but many need at least these basic, ‘universal’ forms of AT to access the job market.
- Create a new AT "Grand Challenge" under its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – allowing development of new AT at no additional cost - then bring together a consortium of AT developers, users, employers and support providers to bid for this funding.
- Overhaul training for Access to Work staff to get a wider range of people using AT, make Access to Work more cost-effective, and open up the market. Some staff remain wedded to recommending expensive specialist equipment when equally good mainstream alternatives are often cheaper - or free. Training is only offered by specialist equipment providers, further binding assessors to those providers and their equipment. DWP needs to ensure assessors consistently recommend the latest and best value equipment, and provide its own training to support it. It should also encourage local AT support organisations to tender their services via the Flexible Support Fund.
- Enhance the planned Disability Confident employer portal to help employers understand what AT can do—often at little or no additional cost— and reassure many of their concerns about taking on and retaining disabled workers.
- Act as a model employer itself, with a new league table of Departments to incentivise them all to improve quickly: civil service computer systems are often not fully accessible to AT users despite all Departments being signed up to the Disability Confident scheme at the highest level of accreditation.
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