Driving economic growth through technology, the disability employment gap, and robotics in healthcare were some of the topics discussed at the latest meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPGAT).
The aim of the meeting was to explore assistive technology in relation to the UK Industrial Strategy, unveiled by the Government in November of last year, which set out plans to boost the UK economy and industry.
Key to the strategy is £725 million of planned investment from an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and four “grand challenges” that will affect global development: artificial intelligence; clean growth; ageing society; and the future of mobility.
Chaired by APPGAT co-chair and renowned Paralympian Lord Chris Holmes, the meeting began with a panel of MPs (including the Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work) and academics giving a short speech about assistive technology, before a Q&A session.
Hazel Harper from Innovate UK (the government’s technology and innovation body) explained that £98 million of the Industrial Strategy’s funding will go towards healthy ageing. She said: “Older people will be able to lead fuller lives, supported by ‘smart home’ technology, wearable devices and tech-enabled healthcare services. We need to develop products and services that are desirable long before they are needed.”
Bill Esterson MP, Shadow Business and International Trade Minister, talked about the value of exporting assistive technology. He said: “Assistive technology is one of the UK’s success stories, but we can do so much more. In a market where the World Health Organisation states that more than one billion people need one or more assistive products, there is a huge opportunity.”
Nigel Harris, chief executive of charity Designability, spoke about the need to push assistive tech into the mainstream: “The biggest barrier we’re facing is general public awareness of the benefits of assistive technology. There is a reluctance to fund it and perceptions are often poor. Until we can unlock this mainstream consumer market, we won’t fully realise the potential.”
Professor Catharine Holloway, co-director of the Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI), talked about the GDI’s varied work with assistive tech in the future of mobility, and related opportunities in the Industrial Strategy. She said: “The UK has a pivotal role to play in scoping out what the market for assistive tech will be globally.”
David Frank from Microsoft talked about artificial intelligence (AI), stating that “Assistive technology is at its best when powered by AI, so [Microsoft] was pleased to see that AI was a theme in the Industrial Strategy.” He also pointed out that assistive tech isn’t just for those with accessibility needs. He said: “It’s also about a wider use of technology to empower all of us to be more productive at work or in our private lives, and that’s something that the Industrial Strategy gets at.”
Alex Burghart MP talked about assistive technology and employment, stating that government needs to increase its expertise and “get up to speed on what’s already out there.” In relation to the Industrial Strategy, Burghart asked: “We have four ‘grand challenges’ – why not have assistive technology running through all of them or alongside as an additional challenge?”
Sarah Newton, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, also stressed the need for assistive tech to be integrated into the Industrial Strategy. She said: “It shouldn’t be a separate thing, it should be embedded in everything we do, because it has the potential to transform so many people’s lives.”
Newton also highlighted the fact that “there is still a very stubborn disability employment gap,” before discussing the government’s Access to Work scheme, which funds equipment for people with health conditions in employment. Newton explained that “there’s no list which restricts how Access to Work can be used … I’d be happy if people contact me to ask, ‘Why isn’t this [technology] on there?’ I don’t think it’s a list with an end, because innovation is happening every day.”
Afterwards, questions from attendees covered a wide range of topics, including the potential of robotics to assist in healthcare. One question from the floor claimed that “Japan has announced that by 2020, four out of five care recipients will be supported by robotic technology,” before wondering if the UK could follow a similar ambition, in order to both healthcare and the UK tech industry.
Elsewhere, there was discussion on the need for effective provision of assistive technology in schools, with one attendee lamenting the lack of training available for teachers in classrooms where assistive technology is used.