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.

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