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Minister Addresses innovation in Assistive Technology

Minister Addresses innovation in Assistive Technology

6th April 2018

The Minister for Disabled People addressed a packed committee room in the house of lords for an APPGAT meeting that marked one year since the group was launched. The panel and discussion event considered the place of assistive technology in the government's Industrial Strategy. The Strategy aims to “boost the economy, build on the country’s strengths and embrace the opportunities of technological change” - at this meeting we heard the need for assistive technology to be at the hart of this effort. The Strategy contains many different elements that are relevant to assistive technology, including the ‘Grand Challenges’ of Ageing Society, Mobility, and Artificial Intelligence. The Minister also highlighted the Strategy’s focus on skills and employment, and the work the Office for Disability Issues is doing with the research councils to ensure disabled people are included in this process.

Lord Homes opened the event and set the scene, and the attendees then heard a short talk from each of the panellists:  

Sarah Newton MP (Minister for Disabled People)

Hazel Harper (Innovate UK)

Bill Esterson MP (Labour, Shadow Minister for Small Business and for International Trade)

Prof. Nigel Harris (Designability at the University of Bath)

David Frank (Microsoft)

Dr. Catherine Holloway (Global Disability Innovation Hub)

Alex Burghart MP (Conservative)

There followed a lively discussion, with questions and contributions from attendees.  A key theme was the need to strengthen markets that will encourage innovation. This included both consumer markets and government programs such as access to work. Hazel Harper from the funding body Innovate UK spoke on the importance of designing products that are desirable as well as needed. And David Frank from Microsoft, explained how accessible features are increasingly found in mainstream consumer technology. On the question of government programs, Alex Burghart MP discussed the assistive technology inquiry of the work and pensions select committee, on which he sits. Alex pointed out the need for programs such as Access to Work to keep up with the latest technology. Speaking more broadly on the need for policy to match and encourage the progress of technology, he said

I think the government needs to become a bit more expert on this [assistive technology]. It just needs to get up to speed on what is already out there, but then we need to help encourage the next generation of products and bring together the tech people, users and disability charities and employers and see if we can thresh out how to deal with some of the challenges - Alex Burhart MP

Several speakers addressed the UK’s strength in assistive technology and the role of UK research and innovation can play in global market. Dr. Catherine Holloway, suggested ideas to better link academic research hubs and incubate assistive technology startups, while Prof. Nigel Harris pointed to the need to ensure that academic research projects find commercial partners to bring the technology to market. Bill Esterson MP, Shadow Minister for Small Business and for International Trade, summed up both the challenge and opportunity:

Assistive Technology “is one of our export success stories.  And in a market where the World Health Organization estimates a billion people are in need of one or more assistive products, there is a huge opportunity out there.  We are very good in this country but we can do so much more” - Bill Esterson MP

In her Keynote speech, the Minister set out the scale of the government's ambition for disabled people and employment, and linked this strongly to the Industrial Strategy:

“I think Assistive Technology shouldn’t be a separate theme [in the Strategy], it should be embedded in everything we do because it has the opportunity to transform so many people’s lives.  1 in 6 people in the workforce has a health condition or disability. It’s not a small group of people, it’s a very large group of people, so their need should be mainstreamed across what we do”.

In a final word to all those in attendance, Lord Holmes reflected the commitment displayed a the event:

It’s clear what the mission is: to ensure everybody, irrespective of background, irrespective of disability or none, is able to fully glean all the benefits from the Industrial Strategy - and what an impact that would have on every individual, on cities, on communities, and quite frankly for our nation.