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Tech funding, employment and apps on the agenda at assistive conference

The government’s technology fund, disability in the workplace and new apps were among the topics discussed at the latest Assistive Technology Conference and Exhibition (ATEC).

Taking place in London, the conference featured a wide range of speakers from the accessibility sector, charities, government and beyond.

In an opening keynote speech on ‘Government approaches to assistive technology’, Sarah Newton MP, the Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, said that the government is “keen to include” assistive technology (AT) as part of its ten-year plan on ‘Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability”. Newton said that AT plays a “huge role” in helping people with disabilities find and stay in work.

She also spoke about the government’s new ‘Tech Fund’, which covers employers’ costs when purchasing AT for employees through the Access To Work scheme. Previously, medium and large employers had to pay a mandatory contribution, but the cost is now being waived through the fund.

Newton concluded her speech by putting out a call to ‘people who are innovating in technology’ to join Open Lab, a network that focuses on inclusive design and works to create new accessible products and services.

Later in the day, a session hosted by the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) highlighted a recent change in VAT rules that now allows devices such as mobile phones and tablets to be VAT-exempt, as long as they are being used for assistive purposes – a change that BATA has been campaigning for.

In a session on ‘New and emerging technologies’ hosted by Andy Hall, Head of Assistive Solutions at charity Scope, Microsoft’s Seeing AI app was discussed and critiqued. The app assists users with sight loss by ‘recognising’ text, objects and even facial expressions, and narrating the content to users.

The final session of the day was a panel debate, with questions from the audience. A key theme was disability and employment, including changing attitudes towards disability in the workplace and what organisations can do to attract a diverse workforce.

Responding to a question about how the AT sector can support people with disabilities who are looking for work, Neil Milliken – Head of Accessibility and Digital Inclusion at IT services company Atos – said that the general view of AT as niche needs to reframed. He said: “AT enables people to be effective at what they do, and helps them help the business [they’re working for], but it’s about communicating that clearly.”

Speaking about why employers might be reluctant to implement AT, Sal McKeown, a freelance journalist specialising in disability, said that there is still a fear of the unknown when it comes to specialist technologies. She also cited lack of knowledge as a factor: “There are some people in technical support with no knowledge of AT. If we could change that and say ‘To be an inclusive organisation, you have to have somebody, somewhere, with an understanding of AT, that would be a step forward.’”

Find out more about the event at the ATEC website.


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