Parliamentarians, founding members, supporters and their guests were out in force on Monday (6 March) at the spectacular launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (#AT_APPG), held in the opulent surroundings of the Speaker’s House in the Palace of Westminster.The current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, welcomed guests to his residence before expressing his delight at being able to host such an important event.
He reminded guests that 10 years ago he had led a major review of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), during the course of which he had witnessed first hand the enormous benefits of assistive technology (AT). The Bercow Report was published in 2008 and a new review – Bercow: Ten Years On – is currently being undertaken by I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT).
John Bercow was followed by Seema Malhotra MP, who said the invitation to Chair the APPG could not have come at a more opportune time as she was already thinking about the huge waste of talent to the UK economy as a result of the disability employment gap and the waste of opportunity by us not thinking differently about disability and how we can create greater access in society as well as in the workplace.
It was absolutely staggering to look at the stats and to see that the disability employment gap is well over 30 per cent, and it is something that we don’t think about enough. We don’t think about it enough as policy makers and we don’t think enough about the change we can bring and the potential of that change to our economy as well as the well-being and welfare of individual families.
Demographic changes, she said, meant we now had an ageing population with many more people living and working for longer. Disability was something that could happen to any of us at any time.
If we are to have a truly equal society then we have to make sure that the issue of disability is as much on the agenda of education and of the workplace as we have seen with gender and race. And in my view we are certainly not there nearly enough. I believe it is the next big nut to crack and I think it is parliament as well that has to play its part in making sure that we change the attitudes of government and parliament as well as looking at how that can be translated into attitudes in the workplace and in society more generally.
The APPG AT will occupy an important space in the dialogue about employment and disability policy, she added, more so now given the rapid pace of technological change. This is not only good for individuals but for the workforce as a whole.
An organisation and a workforce that more widely reflects society as a whole is going to be a workforce that understands the needs of society and that understands the needs of customers much more effectively and in that will treat different people and customers far more equally in the way that we design products and services.
After a short video showcasing the benefits of assistive technology, Seema Malhotra introduced Hannah Rose, AT user and author of Hannah: Some Both Ways. Hannah, who is now 33, was left paralysed from the neck down by transverse myelitis, which she contracted when she was 15. She started her speech by asking anyone who had sent a text or WhatsApp message today to raise their right-hand. A sea of hands shot up. ‘I just wanted to say I can’t raise my right hand but I can send a text message,’ she nonchalantly explained.
Small examples like this are powerful indicators of how AT can change people’s lives but there was much more. Hannah explained how following the onset of her illness she was transformed from an unenthusiastic and sometime reluctant user of technology to someone who became increasingly dependent on it to realise her life goals. Much of this was achieved through her contact with Anna Reeves, Manager of the ACE Centre, who helped identify what AT Hannah could or should use, and the support of Hannah’s parents, Howie and Fran. Thanks to AT – and no shortage of personal determination – Hannah was able to complete her degree and find employment with Cheshire Police, where she has worked for seven years:
The main focus for me was to get a job because I feel that when I became ill what was important to me was to achieve the goals and aspirations that I had before I had this illness. I wanted to keep up with my friends and make sure I lived the life I would have done if this hadn’t happened.
Not only has AT been instrumental in Hannah being able to do her job but at times it has also helped her overcome her sense of isolation:
It’s made a huge difference to me. There were times when I would lie on my bed and I had no contact with the outside world and new technology brought the world into me.
Hannah was followed by one of the APPG’s Co-Chairs, Lord (Chris) Holmes of Richmond MBE, Britain’s most successful Paralympic swimmer. Lord Holmes went blind overnight at the age of 14 but went on to study at Cambridge University and win a record-breaking six Gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992. He added a further three Gold medals, five Silver and a Bronze to his tally before giving up competitive swimming and pursuing a successful career in journalism, law and business.
Lord Holmes said:
When I started off I could see and I lost my sight overnight and it is assistive tech not that was the solution, but it was assistive tech that enabled me to carry on in a mainstream school, go to university and achieve everything that I could. As a clear example, this evening Colin [Lord Low], David [Lord Blunkett] and myself will have our mobile phones in our pockets because there are votes coming up this evening. We’ll get a text message. If there was no assistive tech how would we know? We would get a text message but we can’t read that. But we all have phones with the software on that can read the text, which is good but also gives us no excuse not to be in the voting lobbies later this evening.
There are millions of similar examples of how assistive tech is transformational, he continued, not a solution but as an enabler alongside everything else.
In education, in employment, in social inclusion, why in the 21st Century in the fifth richest economy on the planet do we accept the differential rates of educational attainment for disabled people, the differential rates in employment, when there is no reason why any person, disabled or non-disabled, shouldn’t have the same opportunity to tell their story, to become an accountant, a lawyer, an artist, a writer, maybe even a politician? There’s no reason whatsoever. And assistive tech can be such a driving force, such a dynamo and the exciting thing is we are already well underway in the fourth industrial revolution. I promise you, this will make the first industrial revolution, no matter how revolutionary that was, look like a kids’ tea party by comparison.
Finishing his speech with a passionate plea for Inclusive Design, he added:
If it’s possible to make the Palace of Westminster pretty well accessible, if it’s possible to make my 15th Century college at Cambridge pretty well accessible, why would we build artificial steps in cyber space and have inaccessible apps when there is utterly no reason why that should be the case.
Lord Holmes was followed by Neil Heslop OBE, Chief Executive of Leonard Cheshire and former Managing Director of RNIB Solutions. Blind from the age of 25 he started by reflecting on the extraordinary attitudinal changes to disability over the last 25 years but said that despite the progress that has been made there still remains a significant and unnecessary employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people. Striking a positive note he continued:
There is a real opportunity here if we can cleverly harness technology. Notwithstanding that I’m the Chief Executive of Leonard Cheshire for the last 25 years I have ploughed my trade in the field of technology, serving as Head of Strategy for O2 and Chief Executive of Cincinnati Bell in the US. Over that 25 years what has become extraordinary has become mundane because of those technology changes. It is very difficult to get across to people what Hannah described in terms of the profound effect this has on the way you feel and what you can do.
Taking his mobile phone from his pocket he added:
This thing here, to most people it’s a phone, but as Chris said if you are blind it is window to the world. In coming here today it told me which train to get; I was able to read my briefing papers; I was able to text and do all of those things; and much to the chagrin of my teenage daughters I was even able to stalk them on Twitter.
However, none of this really matters, he cautioned, unless the power of technology is translated through people at a policy level, through employers at a practical level and through the community of technologists ‘who find clever ways to create the opportunity for people to build the skills and the confidence to knock down those very real day-to-day barriers, those very real day-to-day obstacles that Hannah talked about and we all deal with.’
Finally, guests heard from Becky Foreman, UK Corporate Affairs Director for Microsoft, sponsors of the launch. In a short speech she said Microsoft’s mission was to empower every human being and every organisation on the planet to achieve more:
We believe that technology should include and not exclude people and that’s why we are absolutely delighted to be working with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology. I have heard some incredibly inspirational people speak this evening and we look forward to working with everyone as a strong partner, with government, with NGOs and with the whole sector to see continued investment for accessible technology for people with disabilities and for all of us and we hope to continue an active role in this going forward.
All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are informal group of Members of both Houses of Parliament – the Commons and the Lords – who join together to pursue a particular topic or interest. An APPG is essentially run by and for Members although many groups involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. APPGs are bound by strict rules and are not official parliamentary bodies.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology was initiated by the ACE Centre, a UK charity and service provider specialising in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and AT, and Inclusive Technology, an award-winning AT developer and supplier. Special World is a Founding Member.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology aims to disseminate knowledge, generate debate and facilitate engagement on assistive technology amongst Members of both Houses of Parliament. Its Secretariat is provided by Policy Connect.