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American and British AT organisations meet in Parliament

American and British AT organisations meet in Parliament

12th June 2018

The APPGAT welcomed the boards of both the British and American assistive technology associations for a meeting to foster closer ties between UK and US assistive technology sector. The meeting was chaired by Noel Duffy of Dolphin Computer Access who sits on the boards of BATA (British Assistive Technology Association) and the American ATIA (Assistive Technology Trade  Association), as well as the advisory board of the APPGAT itself. Participants discussed the policy and market contexts for AT in the two countries and the roles of sector organisations in promoting trade, international cooperation and effective policy around AT.  

The group first heard from Tara Rudnicki, who is North American President of Tobii Dynavox and Board President for ATIA. Tara explained the role of Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance providers in the US, as well as school boards. Tara also told the group of the ATIA’s recently successful campaign to ensure that Medicare fully covers AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) devices.

John Lamb, the executive director of BATA, spoke next, to give the UK context. John explained BATA’s focus on digital and electronic AT, and the ‘patchwork quilt’ of programs and providers - both commercial and non-profit - that make up the UK AT market. He highlighted the prominent role of Access to Work grants, Disabled Students Allowances for students in higher education, and NHS commissioning of assistive technology, through specialist hubs for those with more complex needs. John also noted that there has been a decline in investment in AT, and educational technology more generally, in schools. Turning to BATA’s own campaign work, John gave the news of BATA’s recent success in extending the 0% VAT rate for assistive technology to include more up-to-date technology such as smartphones and laptops (where these come preloaded with assistive software). BATA has also produced research to show the negative impact of the introduction of a £200 charge on accessing assistive technology in university.

Next, and coming directly from a session on Health in the chamber, Barry Sheerman MP addressed the group and welcome the ATIA members to the UK parliament.  Barry celebrated the ‘common cause’ of the APPGAT, BATA and the ATIA, and highlighted the global nature of the assistive technology agenda   

We’ve got a great campaign, not only to know about the technology, share the technology but to make sure that in every land and every country in this world we’ve got help for people who need that assistive technology - Barry Sheerman MP

Finally, and speaking as a member of parliament, Barry said the APPG “is absolutely fundamental to inform us, giving us the evidence and ammunition” to drive the assistive technology agenda forward in parliament.        

Continuing the theme of international corporation, the chair introduced Jack Churchill, from the board of BATA and co-founder of Scanning Pens, to talk about his experience in beginning to export to the US. Jack pointed to the fact that AT is often the site of innovation that can benefit all people as well as those who are disabled, and Jack himself used voice-to-text software to write his presentation.

Assistive technology is a great place to look for technology of the future

Scanning Pens used the ATIA conference in Orlando as a launch pad to begin to export to the US. Jack noted the strong presence that the UK assistive technology sector has at ATIA conferences, demonstrating the UK AT sector’s international reach and status. As well as taking advantage of the help of ATIA, Jack explained the role of the Department for International Trade in supporting Scanning Pens’ journey into exporting. Scanning Pens purchased a tailored package of services from the Department including advice and market research conducted by the British Consulate in New York. Jack endorsed this ‘fantastic’ service from the UK Government and also noted the role of the EU which provided a grant to purchase data from schools. Finally, Jack informed attendees of the newly created BATA subcommittee on exporting, which is sure to have continued contact with the ATIA. Some agenda items for the group include video tutorials on selling to US schools, and the creation of US AT forum similar to that of the British Dyslexia Association, where developers can answer questions about the technology and get feedback from AT users.

David Dikter, the CEO of ATIA, spoke next and built on the previous talk to explain how ATIA can support the UK assistive technology sector. Through the ATIA conference and networks, UK companies can build relationships and learn about nuances of the US market, different in each state, and even establish partnerships with other companies in the US. David also addressed the importance of the professional development and ideas sharing that sector organizations can facilitate. ATIA does this through their conference but also web-based training. Another topic David raised was ATIA’s work on promoting accessibility in digital assessments for school children. This is also a pressing issue in the UK and will be addressed in the forthcoming APPGAT event on schools.

Finally, Robert McLaren, manager of the APPGAT for Policy Connect, gave an overview of how the APPGAT works to improve policy around AT.  Robert stressed the collaborative nature of the APPGAT’s approach, involving parliamentarians from both Houses and all major parties, as well as drawing on the expertise and perspective of the AT sector, including academics, developers, and AT users themselves. Robert then shared how the group works to inform and influence both parliament and government, and the link between those to activities. Another point raised here was the ‘tick tock’ of policy engagement, with policy events in parliament to raise awareness, build connections and generate ideas, which are then followed by written policy interventions that draw on the findings from events (consultation responses, select committee evidence summations and briefings to parliamentarians and civil servants).

There then followed a lively discussion among all attendees. BATA vice-chair Rick Bell raised the issue of procurement in schools, where school often lack the confidence and knowledge to make decisions about investing in technology. Anna Reeves, CEO of the Ace Centre, also contributed on this point to highlight the importance of good data to show the impact of assistive technology, to make the case to schools. This is another issue that will be taken up prominently in the next APPGAT event on schools. Another key theme was the recently published Work and Pensions Select Committee report into assistive technology. Some participants expressed concern that the report minimised the importance of more specialist assistive technology, while there was also a shared enthusiasm for the key recommendations of the report, including to formalise CPD requirements for Access to Work assessors.

Following the meeting, the ATIA invited attendees to join them at an outdoor drinks reception, organised by Inclusive Technology. This gave attendees ample time to carry on the conversation and network in a relaxed setting. We would like to thank ATIA for extending this invitation to all the meeting’s attendees and for making their visit to the UK. The event marks the beginning of even closer ties between the UK and US AT sectors, and a deepening of the APPGAT’s participation in the global AT agenda.