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Evolving technologies won’t automatically empower people, says Paralympian

Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence have huge potential to empower assistive technology users, but we cannot simply wait for this to happen, a renowned Paralympian and member of the House of Lords has said.

In an opening speech at the Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference (ATEC) in London earlier this month, Lord Chris Holmes told delegates that these technologies must be harnessed in the right way.

Using the ‘Internet of Things’, artificial intelligence, ‘big data’ and robotics as examples, Holmes said: “All of these technologies are neutral when it comes to accessibility. They can have such a transformative impact, but it won’t just happen as a matter of course. They could just exacerbate existing patterns and structures of exclusion.”

Holmes claimed that technology provides a “phenomenal opportunity” to enable people in education, employment and through social inclusion, but also that these processes will not just evolve automatically. He said: “It’s as much down to politicians, policy-makers and government to lead on so much of this if we’re going to realise the opportunities that exist.”

Holmes also revealed that the newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPGAT – read more in e-Access Bulletin’s previous APPGAT coverage: ) will soon be launching its first enquiry. Holmes, who is a co-chair of the group, said it would be “a great focal point for parliamentarians from all parties, a chance for them to focus on getting people into [assistive technology] who’ve never considered it.”

During his time as an athlete, Holmes won 15 Paralympic medals for swimming, nine of them gold. In his speech to ATEC delegates in London, he discussed the evolution of assistive technology and how it provided an invaluable lifeline to him growing up and in his swimming training, after he suddenly and unexpectedly lost his sight at 14-years-old.

Speaking about the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Holmes explained how in-ear audio description devices designed for visually impaired spectators quickly became popular with all visitors, demonstrating the benefits of universal design. Accessibility and inclusion were “hardwired” throughout the 2012 games, he said.

This kind of innovative thinking will continue at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, said Holmes, who visited technology labs in Tokyo to find out more about accessibility measures at the event. Holmes said: “What they’re currently working on and what will be showcased and rolled-out in 2020 will be quite sensational. In terms of mobility, communication, translation and every element of the games – it’s not just technology that’s being thought of, but assistive technology.”

Read more about Lord Chris Holmes at his website: .

Read more about the Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference at the ATEC website: .


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