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Going global: The Global Disability Innovation Hub

In July, a bold new partnership to improve global access to assistive technology was announced at the UK Government’s first Global Disability Summit. The ‘ATscale’ project features various strands being worked on by different partners, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Department for International Development (DFID), UNICEF and GDI (Global Disability Innovation) Hub.

For some, this will be the first they’ve heard of GDI Hub, although the organisation has been active in a wide range of global, disability-focused projects since launching in 2016.

Here, we take a closer look at the Hub and its work – including the ambitious assistive technology (AT) project announced at the Disability Summit –  through a chat with its Research Development Manager, Paul Steynor.

- E-Access Bulletin: Please give us some background on GDI Hub.

Paul Steynor: “The Hub is a 2012 Paralympic Games legacy project, and it was formally launched by the Mayor of London in 2016. We’re based at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which is becoming something of a hub for innovation. We have a number of founding partners, including three educational partners: University College London, Loughborough University London and the London College of Fashion.”

- What are the Hub’s aims?

“The broad vision is to accelerate disability innovation for a fairer world, by focusing on three main areas: teaching, research and practice. A lot of our early projects had a computer science focus, but across the partnership we have academics from a whole range of disciplines, from engineering to the arts, so the application for what we could do is quite broad – it’s not really a case of ‘We do do this and we don’t do that.’ We’re extremely open and we work on projects of any nature.

“One thing that’s key for us is to make sure disabled people are embedded in the process from start to finish. My role as Research Development Manager is to work with all of the partners and generate research funding ideas to take to funders.”

- Tell us more about AT:2030, the project that GDI Hub is working on as part of the ATscale partnership.

“DFID commissioned the Hub to do a small scoping exercise around disability and inclusive international development. From that, it was evident that a lot more research was needed and that there could be a substantial project within it. The key facts are:

  • One billion people in the world today are in need of AT, which is expected to double by 2050.
  • There’s a huge lack of access to AT by the people who need it most.
  • This lack of AT is inextricably linked with poverty.

“There have been many attempts by many organisations to address this, but there’s never really been a coordinated approach. That’s what AT:2030 is aiming to do.

“For example, lots of AT used in lower and middle-income countries basically consists of older versions of AT from western society that’s no longer needed and was sent over as donations. But there’s no assessment of whether the technology is actually useful to the individual user. So there may be a number of wheelchairs sent to Kenya in a year, but when they arrive, no one’s assessed whether someone can use one of the wheelchairs – maybe this person has steps outside their house and no ramp, for example.

“AT:2030 is about taking a joined-up approach to AT in lower and middle-income countries to see how we can close the gap and achieve  better outcomes for users. By 2030, one of the goals is for AT to reach at least three million people. DFID have committed £10 million investment to the project and Microsoft will be coming on-board, focusing on their Seeing AI app.”

- What does GDI Hub have planned for the future?

“AT:2030 is the main thing we’re working on at the moment. From 2019 we’ll be jointly delivering an MSc course: Disability, Design and Innovation. We’ve also been interested in the Government’s Industrial Strategy and we’ve been trying to influence that from a disability perspective.

“From my point of view, I want us to build an ecosystem of researchers that can drive forward the next generation of research and innovation projects related to disability. And we need to continue getting research funding in, because the more people we can engage with through that, the greater the solutions are that we’re going to be able to come up with.”

Read more about GDI Hub work and AT:2030 at the GDI Hub website.

Find out more about ATscale at the project website.


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