Political pugilism gave way to a rare outbreak of unity at Westminster recently. An event, in the palatial quarters of Speaker John Bercow, officially celebrated the birth of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPG AT).

APPGs bring cross-party members together to pursue a particular interest. While they have no official status in Parliament, they can be a catalyst for positive change.

This APPG was initiated by the ACE Centre, which offers augmentative and alternative communication services. Anna Reeves, who runs the charity and was a driving force behind the APPG, says: “We’re focusing on the wider range of people that could benefit from assistive technology, which is rapidly evolving all the time.

“It’s touched a nerve with politicians because they are getting their constituents coming to them expressing frustrations about not having access to the right support that could be life-changing for them.”

Assistive technology (AT) is used by people with a range of conditions, including autism, vision and hearing problems, mobility impairment, learning and cognitive disabilities and manual dexterity difficulties.

Its ongoing advancement offers vast potential; but also presents a number of problems deserving of the APPG’s attention. Among them is the inconsistent provision of access and support across the country.

In 2014, a £15m-a-year injection of funding via NHS England was announced, supporting the provision of equitable services and equipment to children and adults unable to communicate verbally. The establishment of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) services has made “a massive difference” according to Reeves – but inequalities remain.

“Support is no longer patchy for people with complex needs who require technology to support their verbal communication – for example, those in the latter stages of motor neurone disease or with cerebral palsy with very complex levels of disability. They can all access equitable services and provision across the country, which is fantastic.

“But there are still lots of people who are
not eligible for those services. If they have 
a less complex level of need they might not necessarily get the same level of support or access to the technology. There is also work to be done in terms of giving people who need it, access to a wider range of technology,
including computer access at home and access to mobile phone technology, which can be hugely liberating.”

Environmental control systems, which support independent living by enabling tasks like operating curtains, TVs and the front door, should also be more easily accessible,
says Reeves.

“There has been an explosion of AT that could make a difference to thousands of people’s lives. However, the benefits of the technology are far wider reaching than just helping people with little or no speech or with complex physical disabilities.

“For example, people in hospital may need such technology temporarily to communicate with the outside world. It can also support children in education, help people with disabilities gain employment and improve independent living. We need a political spotlight to ensure AT is embedded into policy, legislation and funding streams.”

If technology is to help secure jobs for people previously excluded from the workplace, one glaring error must be addressed, says Reeves.

“It seems obvious to me that if you give somebody technology to enable them to
show evidence of their potential and their capabilities, then they are more likely to be
able to compete on an even playing field in a recruitment situation.

“But as it stands, people can’t get support for the assistive equipment they need to do the job, until they’ve got the job. Surely you need the equipment to be able to prove you can do the job to get it. The system seems back to front.”

Amid cuts to disability benefits and the introduction of tougher eligibility tests in recent years, there may well be an appetite within the APPG to tackle this issue. Certainly early signs suggest AT’s link with employability is near the top of the group’s agenda.

As MP Seema Malhotra (pictured) put it at the APPG launch: “If we are to have a truly equal society then we have to make sure the issue of disability is as much on the agenda of education and the workplace as we have seen with gender
and race.”

According to the Resolution Foundation think-tank, 49% of disabled people aged 16–64 were in work last year, compared with 81% of non-disabled people. The disability employment gap—the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non- disabled people – therefore stood at 32 percentage points. Utilising technology to close this gap could have significant economic benefits to the nation; but wouldn’t the sheer cost of the technology be a major barrier in these days of austerity?

“The cost of the technology itself is a bit of a red herring,” says Reeves.
“With the obvious reduction of benefits and the increased taxes from getting more people into work, the cost is relatively low, although we need better research and evidence around that topic.”

Reeves sees training implications associated with AT as a bigger barrier than cost issues. “Clearer funding streams for technology would certainly help but I think significant investment is needed in terms of people’s time to develop skills and knowledge of the technologies.”

A lack of the knowledge needed to recommend and support AT usage is particularly evident in schools.

“We go to schools all the time and see equipment that could be life-changing for some children, but the staff don’t know how to use it, so it gets shoved to the back of a cupboard.

“It’s not as straightforward as the schools not having enough money.
The equipment is already there in many instances but is not necessarily used as well as it should be. There have been lots of cuts
to services supporting schools at a local authority level and schools have become more independent and in control of their own budgets.

“I think there is a risk that children with special educational needs and disabilities may not
be prioritised for the provision they need. But also, the expertise isn’t available to the schools about what technology is out there, and what a difference it could make to certain children.”

Reeves would like to see more training opportunities offered to a range of professionals about AT. Teachers, speech and language professionals, occupational therapists, school technicians, support staff working with adults in care and special educational needs co-ordinators would all benefit,
she says.

Such courses are often poorly attended and not prioritised by time-starved professionals and their bosses, however. It is hoped the APPG will help to switch more
professionals onto the value of AT and generate more demand for
AT-related training.

Reeves also recognises the need for clearer and more detailed evidence about the power of AT.

“There needs to be more research into this area and we need a better understanding of what AT can do to support people. We need to know how many people need it, what that costs and what difference it makes.
We haven’t got the research to answer
those basic questions. We’d like to get more academic institutions involved, although it’s quite difficult to identify funding streams where this could fit in.”

Funding to support innovation and new product development in AT is similarly strained. Often AT products have been spawned from technology used in more commercially-driven markets.

“Investors are usually looking to develop technology with a wide range of benefits, not just for people with disabilities, as
the funding is just not there to develop
it. Eye-gaze technology is used a lot in supermarkets to understand where customers are looking on the shelves,
for example. At the same time, it can be life-changing for people with no other movement than their eyes.”

Research and development will no doubt be one of many discussion points for the APPG once its work takes shape.

Follow the group’s progress online at policyconnect.org.uk.

Who’s who

The APPG AT is chaired by Labour and Co-operative Party MP Seema Malhotra, who represents Feltham and Heston.

She is also a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Exiting the European Union. She recently served as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and continues to keep an interest in economic affairs, productivity, how growth and prosperity can be shared and youth educational achievement.

The group is co-chaired by Lord Holmes of Richmond, MBE, one of Britain’s greatest Paralympians, amassing nine gold, five silver and one bronze medal across four games, including a record haul of six golds in Barcelona in 1992.

His fellow co-chairs are Lord Low of Dalston CBE – a lifelong campaigner for the rights of blind and disabled people – and Conservative MP Matt Warman, who represents Boston and Skegness.

Other parliamentarians in the APPG include MPs John Cryer, Neil Coyle, Barry Sheerman and Bill Esterton. Universities, technology firms and charities are among several organisations supporting the group.