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Cheap loans to boost AT at work

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should set up a Motability-type scheme to provide low cost loans to buy assistive technology (AT), according to a recently published report on AT and employment by the Work and Pensions Committee.

The DWP should allow Personal Independence Payments to be used to lease or buy AT, in the same way as it can now be used to lease a car, the cross-party Committee argues.

Users of the scheme should be offered a consultation before buying equipment, with expert assistive technology advisers, to ensure they are buying the most appropriate and cost-effective equipment.

The DWP need not administer the scheme, but should ensure that whoever does so works in line with the principles of providing a public service.

Assistive technology is becoming cheaper and increasingly mainstream, says the report, and has the ability to close the gap between number of disabled and non-disabled people in work.

“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,” said Alex Burghart MP, a committee member.

But employers and disabled people continue to perceive AT as costly, bespoke equipment, and its development is being held back by outdated attitudes, MPs note.

Their report calls on the Government to create a fifth Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge on Assistive Technology and bring together a consortium of AT developers and entrepreneurs, users, employers and support providers to bid for funding, to bridge gaps in provision.

To encourage employers, the report recommends the DWP dedicates a section of its Disability Confident portal to assistive technology.

To encourage government to be more accessible, the DWP is urged to create a central standard for accessible systems in government departments, publishing an annual report on compliance that ranks departments from most to least accessible.

Opportunities for disabled people to understand the potential benefits of assistive technology while looking for work are limited, the report says. It recommends DWP introduces mandatory training on AT for workplace coaches.

In addition the report recommends DWP undertakes an assessment of suppliers of assistive technology support in order to develop a more extensive market linked to the Flexible Support Fund, which enables Jobcentre Plus to cover job seekers’ travel expenses, training courses and clothing for interviews.

Read the full report here.


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Education Committee launches inquiry into new SEND system

The House of Commons Education Committee has launched an inquiry into support for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

In 2014, the Government introduced changes to the SEND system, with the intention of offering simpler, improved and consistent help for children and young people with SEND.

The Government claimed these changes would give families greater choice in decisions. The Committee’s new inquiry is intended to review the success of these reforms, how they have been implemented, and what impact they are having in meeting the challenges faced by children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

The Committee is inviting written evidence on the following by 14 June 2018:

  • Assessment of and support for children and young people with SEND
  • The transition from statements of special educational needs and Learning Disability Assessments to Education, Health and Care Plans
  • The level and distribution of funding for SEND provision
  • The roles of and co-operation between education, health and social care sectors
  • Provision for 19-25-year olds including support for independent living; transition to adult services; and access to education, apprenticeships and work

In line with the general practice of select committees, the Education Committee resolved on 12 September 2017 to not investigate individual cases. The Committee understands that personal experiences will form an important part of many submissions, but requests that any written evidence directly addresses the terms of reference set out above.

If you would like to respond to the inquiry you can make a submission here.

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Nine out of ten disabled people have no access to AT solutions

Ninety percent of the world has no access to assistive solutions, Professor Luc de Witte, told the recent Assistive Technology Conference at Salford University.

Describing a trip to India where he encountered disabled people living in piteous conditions, the professor expressed his frustration at the huge discrepancy between his work on robotics and the reality of life in India where there are 100m disabled people.

Professor de Witte is professor of Health Services Research at Sheffield University and President of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE).

There was a huge market for assistive technology in developing countries, he said. “There are 85m disabled people in China and no help for them. How you bridge the divide is to create quality standards and develop useful models of systems.”

The Professor advocated two track innovation that focused both on emerging technologies such as the care robots he is working on, but also included older, proven technologies.

Delegates at the conference, chaired by BATA executive director John Lamb, also heard from David Brown of the RNIB who gave a compelling account of his experiences with AT after he was blinded in Iraq.

Brown described the development of smartphone accessibility and demonstrated Microsoft’s iPhone app Seeing AI, which he described as a Swiss army knife for the blind and partially sighted.

The app uses facial recognition algorithms; it recognizes saved friends and describes the emotions of people around the user. It can read text out loud including text on signs and can also scan and read documents.

Seeing AI is able to recognize bank notes and is equipped with a barcode scanner to identify items in the supermarket or pantry. Its experimental options include a verbal narration of the environment that it sees.

Brown also chatted to  a volunteer on the Be My Eyes service which enables sighted people to describe images captured by a blind person’s smartphone. There are 500,000 volunteers and 40,000 users of Be My Eyes.

One of Brown’s ambitious is to increase the number of vision impaired people using tech aids. He is part of the RNIB’s Online Today programme, aimed at encouraging 100,000 people to get online.

Anna Reeves, chief executive of the Ace Centre, talked about efforts to improve the availability of assessments and equipment to the over 270,000 people in England and Wales with speech and communications impairments.

She described the hub and spoke infrastructure, introduced after the Bercow report on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and talked about the ACE Centre’s contract with the NHS to improve access to AAC.

Hubs are centres of expertise organised on a regional basis. They support local centres or spokes. There is £15m per year available to fund the programme.

People with severe cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and brain injury were likely to get access to the 350 communications aids available.

Those without complex needs were less likely to get the kit they needed. “It is still a post code lottery,” said Reeves.