Sarah Newton MP outlines strategy for government investment in assistive tech

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The government has just introduced a new fund to support the adoption of assistive technology in the workplace so that more disabled people can enter employment. Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton, shares how the money will mean more investment in assistive tech companies and a strategy to encourage disabled end-users to buy special technologies.

The potential of assistive technology to help disabled and elderly people live more independent and fulfilling lives is widely recognised and the market for such technologies is rapidly expanding. There are any number of start-up businesses developing new and exciting ways of incorporating assistive tech into the home and other spheres and it has been identified as an important and lucrative sphere. In spite of all of this, assistive technology has been adopted much slower than the first pioneers had hoped.

The elderly market and its general resistance to and scepticism of assistive technology has perhaps been a factor in its slower-than-expected growth in this field. But looking away from devices being installed in people’s homes, the workplace could now become a key marketplace for companies looking to sell their assistive tech devices and software.

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Recent data has shone a light on the lack of disabled people in employment and naturally, the government has come under fire. In response, ministers have now insisted that the government is keen to make the best use of technology which can remove barriers to work for disabled people. Speaking at the Naidex show, Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton, promises that the government will be supporting the use of technology to help disabled people get into and make progress in work.

“An adjustable bed is no good if there isn’t an accessible home to put it in and a mobility scooter is no good if there are no drop curbs”

Ms Newton notes that the number of disabled people in work has increased by around 600,000 in the last four years but now technology is spearheading plans to boost this number. She says the government has taken “significant actions to increase disabled peoples’ access to technology”. And with a target of getting more than a million more people into employment over the next few years, ministers will certainly need all the help they can get from assistive tech companies.

Fortunately, Ms Newton says that the Chancellor is happy to back the necessary funding as he believes it will benefit the economy in the long term. Philip Hammond has already allocated budget to the government’s current grant, Access to Work, which already spends around £104m on grants and supported more than 25,000 people in the last financial year. Ms Newton recently decided to raise the Access to Work funding cap so that people can now receive up to £57,200 per person per year towards special equipment and adaptations in the workplace.

The new assistive tech fund will be introduced under the Access to Work scheme to ensure disabled people are able to benefit from the latest advances in technology. Previously, medium and large employers were required to pay a mandatory contribution towards the cost of assistive technology for disabled employees, but under the new fund, the costs will be waivered and employers will enjoy “significant financial savings”, according to Ms Newton. It is hoped that organisations will be more prepared to invest in assistive technology when they have the financial support available.

Ms Newton takes the opportunity of hosting an audience of mobility industry experts to outline the government’s industrial strategy. She says the strategy sets out “a real ambition for the UK in this area and [the government] launched the Grand Challenge, which is all about enhancing the use of artificial intelligence, mobility and automated vehicles and encouraging the aging population to live independently”. She continues: “The Grand Challenge [goes] out to businesses, entrepreneurs and universities around the country and there is funding available through this to enable it to happen.”

One of the key objectives of the new industrial strategy is to build consumer trust in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI). The government hopes to combat scepticism of adopting assistive technology in the home and workplace, which some observers feel is holding its progression back.

Ms Newton asks: “How many times do we open up the newspaper or we go online or we hear the news and it’s all talking about the threat of technology? There’s is increased prosperity, rather than less. I’m utterly determined to make sure, with the use of technology, which is at the core of this fourth industrial revolution that is inclusive and enabling, will be put to work for [disabled people] so they are included.”

With this in mind, Ms Newton refers to Innovate UK, which has launched “the largest innovation programme in health and care to date”. Open Lab is a virtual network of technology experts, engineers, entrepreneurs and disabled people. The community has been bought together to explore a common interest in technology and innovation that can enable disabled people.

An example of its work is Jane Cole’s efforts, who is the managing director of Blackpool Transport. She has helped to develop a new travel app which was trialled and created alongside people living with dementia and has been rolled out for people with all disabilities.

Ms Newton hopes projects like One Lab will spur more organisations to become more welcoming of assistive technology. She says she always wants to encourage governments to make sure they are always thinking about the role they can play to make assistive technology available through the services that they are providing, like transport, so that they can help disabled people overcome barriers like getting to work.

But Ms Newton warns that the government, organisations, the industry and indeed society, must not forget that assistive tech solutions need to be backed up by completely accessible and inclusive environments. She continues: “An adjustable bed is no good if there isn’t an accessible home to put it in and a mobility scooter is no good if there are no drop curbs. I work very closely with the planning and construction industry to ensure that commercial and residential developments are fully inclusive. I really need to make sure that the building regulations are taken seriously and there are enough accessible properties for people and that’s something I am taking forward.”

The minister concludes by saying that the challenges she wants to overcome cannot be cleared on her own and she is therefore calling on members of the industry, including assistive technology suppliers, to work together to bring about change.

While assistive technology has struggled to find its way into homes and workplaces on a wide scale, the wheels appear to be in motion for a change which could see more business for assistive technology providers. Funding is arguably the main barrier to any organisation or end-user wanting to adopt solutions and so the government’s announcement will be welcome news to providers and any dealers offering products in the field. As more organisations buy into assistive technology, there is every chance that it will become more widely accepted in spheres like the home, adding further value to the overall market. That is the plan, now the industry must wait to see how it develops.

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