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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

Working on innovation to support new products and service delivery in assistive technology

Emerging technologies hold huge potential for people with assistive technology (AT) needs, yet new AT products do not always meet these needs, often because they are too expensive, not scalable, or do not address the specific needs of disabled people. GDI Hub Academic Director Professor Cathy Holloway is overseeing the innovation cluster of AT2030 to help improve innovation in AT.

GDI Hub co-founder and Academic Director, Professor Cathy Holloway addresses the launch, in front of branded banners

With the speed of technological innovation and advancement, many entrepreneurs are drawn towards designing AT innovations with the ambition of meaningfully helping others, yet there is often a mismatch between the products being developed, and the ability of disabled people to make use of them.

To create AT that can have the best possible impact, disabled people need to be centrally involved in the development process, and consideration needs to be given to the market viability of these products too.

Disability interaction in AT innovation

In response to this, one of the four clusters of AT2030 is innovation, overseen by GDI Hub Academic Director Cathy Holloway.

“In society, we’re very focused on designing and funding the next greatest thing,” “In AT, this can be things like haptics, integrated prostheses and robots. And while these are hugely exciting areas, we also know that the majority of people in the world who need wheelchairs don’t have them. In this strand of work, we’re saying that it’s just as innovative to look at service elements and provision elements, informing product design with this as a starting point.”

Cathy is overseeing a number of research projects, initiatives and PhD students to improve the way that innovation is realised in AT. This includes Innovate Now, the first AT innovation hub in Africa, and the Assistive Technology Impact Fund (ATIF) to support the AT market in Africa.

Through their work on innovation so far, the team has found there are three critical areas for innovating successfully in AT. The first is having disabled people as a core part of the entrepreneurial team. Co-design is fundamental to creating AT products that are actually needed. Having a continued level of diversity in a team stimulates a different level of thinking, and gives the innovation as a whole more integrity. Bringing lived experience together with entrepreneurial skills is important for the AT world. The second necessary aspect is rigorous testing, which must be part of any AT product business model. Embracing the idea of partnerships is the final critical element to success in AT innovation.

Next steps

GDI Hub bring together these critical elements of innovation in AT by creating bespoke accelerator programmes that make sense in local contexts (as has been done in Kenya and Nepal). Learning from global programmes and upskilling across all actors including decision makers, disabled people and ventures.

Thinking about the audience for particular AT products is also important. For example, for educational technologies, it is most likely to be education ministers and educational settings making purchasing decisions. As well as finding the right price points, pedagogical evidence will be expected to support the value of the AT. On the other hand, navigation aids are most likely to be purchased by disabled people themselves, so user feedback is a key element of the innovation process here.

Cathy is also keen to explore the idea of what assistive technology actually is.

“One person I know with Tourette’s Syndrome says her top pieces of AT include a straw, her iPhone, and Doodle polls, AT is quite often the things you don’t think of. Mobile phones can be particularly transformational. For example, mobiles help people who are visually impaired or wheelchair users to navigate built environments that are not accessible.”

“Inclusion in AT innovation can be really hard,” Cathy explained. “Some people don’t even identify as disabled when they have certain impairments, but achieving inclusion is vital. It’s a societal problem; it’s not just about the products. We’re trying to weave this thinking into AT innovation in as many ways as we can. I care about people having the technology they need so they can do what they want to do with their lives. That’s what drives us.”