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Atos puts its web know-how at BATA’s disposal

 

Atos, a leading player in the global digital services market, heads a number of firms backing the British Assistive Technology Association by providing invaluable assistance in developing our website www.bataonline.org.

The company, which counts the BBC and the Department of Health among its portfolio of UK clients, has put its 14-strong accessibility team at BATA’s disposal to research and advise on the best way of building its site.

They join members that have assisted BATA’s web effort including the Digital Accessibility Centre whose disabled testers have advised on web accessibility and literacy software company Texthelp, which is providing its Browsealoud accessibility tool.

“We want to support the continuing professionalisation of AT and to ensure that BATA is an organization that is welcoming to large corporations in order to ensure that disabled people have more fulfilling lives,” says Neil Milliken, Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion at Atos.

Neil and his unit provide consultancy and AT services to Atos colleagues and Atos’s customers. They oversee the delivery of software remotely but also go on site to support individuals using a range of AT products such as JAWS and Dragon NaturallySpeaking. They test and audit clients’ systems for accessibility and write scripts for assistive software.

“I believe we need to work with the supply chain to deliver the best quality of assistive software and services to our staff and customers” explains Neil. “BATA, as the organisation representing professionals, is the best way of engaging with those people involved with assistive technology.”

Neil is keen to help assistive software companies adopt licencing practices that are big company friendly involving less paperwork, less disruption for users and that avoid complex licensing mechanisms that often don’t work in controlled enterprise environments.

Atos is one of a growing number of companies that has appointed a Chief Diversity Officer with a remit that covers disability inclusion. However, accessibility and inclusion in the workplace is an issue that has still got a long way to go, says Neil, even if it has come on in leaps and bounds over the last ten years.

For example, Atos and the BBC are working on a joint project to challenge unconscious bias and assumptions about age, race, gender and disability.

“People are realising that we have an ageing population where wealth is in the asset owning elderly cohort, who are the people most likely to be disabled. As the workforce becomes older, accessibility will soon become an even greater issue for employers, so it’s vital to take steps towards greater inclusion now.”

Atos has developed an AT apprenticeship scheme as part of its diversity programme. And the company is working with the Tech Partnership to develop a national standard for AT apprenticeships. “We need to grow the number of people with these skills, so we don’t keep stealing people from one another,” Neil points out.

In a further move to boost AT skills, Neil is working with Southampton University to adapt its massive open online course (MOOC) with the aim of making the training material available to people in business  to learn about accessibility. Topics such as alt text and accessible captcha authentication will be available in bite-size chunks on the learning platform.

Hiring disabled people is also a key objective for Atos, especially younger ones who are outnumbered by older workers. To make its recruitment more inclusive, the company is trialling blind hiring where facts such a person’s age, gender and disability are initially taken out when sifting applications.

The company is also experimenting with work trials where an applicant works for a period before the company makes a decision on whether to hire them, an approach aimed at recruiting more neurodiverse employees.

Neil has many outside interests. He is the Atos representative on the Business Taskforce for Assistive Technology which has members across industry and government. He is a member of the W3C Accessibility Guidelines Working Group He also runs www.AXSChat.com, an AT forum on social media.

“I am very driven by an urge to make the world a more inclusive place. I am involved with research projects about dyslexia and I am about to become a board member of an international charity,” he explains.

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Video shows what it is like to have dyslexia

British graphic and motion designer Josh Penn has created a 60-second animation that communicates what it is like to have dyslexia.

The animation, which Penn made during his final year of his Graphic Design: Visual Communication degree at University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, sees typography moving, spinning and flickering around the screen to form jumbled words. Letters morph into each other and fade into the background to give an impression of what it’s like to suffer from the reading disorder.

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Town hall contracts overlook accessibility

More than 60 per cent of outsourcing deals between local authorities and third-party suppliers happen without discussion of disability requirements, according to a study by the Business Disability Forum.

Many local authorities could be risking paying more to retrofit services or offices for accessibility which have been allowed to be delivered in a way that does not cater to disabled people.

A study entitled Disability-smart approaches to engaging suppliers and partners, conducted with businesses in the private and public sector, found that only one in four organisations review contracts with third-party suppliers to ensure they delivered on requirement for inclusion and accessibility while less than two in five reported having discussions with these suppliers about how they approach disability outside of formal processes.

The deals are worth £50 billion and affect functions ranging from HR and recruitment to facilities management and construction services.

Diane Lightfoot, chief executive officer at Business Disability Forum, said: “Local authorities continue to face shrinking budgets but they could be incurring a considerable additional expense through the way that they outsource services or parts of them.

“A significant proportion of the population in every local authority area in the country will have a disability or long-term health condition that could impact on their ability to access services. Ensuring that they can access services, then, can never be an afterthought: it has to be a central part of service design.

“Arrangements to procure outside suppliers for services are, unfortunately, where accessibility can be missed out – leading to legal risks and extra costs down the line in building accessibility measures in later.”

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NASEN honours SEN practitioners

The National Association of Special Educational Needs (NASEN) charity, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will be making its first annual awards to schools, colleges and individual professionals at a black tie ceremony in London at the Museum of London on October 19.
NASEN will be making 16 awards from 126 entries, covering a wide variety of educational settings. BATA was honoured to be invited to help judge the technology and excellent practice in further education categories which attracted particularly strong entries.

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Sponsored walk – “Putting BATA on the Map!”

 

Photo fo all the locations we visited

Disabled people are often prevented from making the most of their lives because of the barriers that stop them working and taking part in everyday activities. Assistive technology can change that. The British Assistive Technology Association was set up to campaign to raise awareness of AT and to encourage the development of new technologies. One of the areas BATA is keen to promote is aids for people who have a vision impairment. To fund activities in this area members are undertaking a sponsored walk in the Peak District. A group of members set off on a 25km hike between Bakewell, via Ashford in the Water to Tideswell and finally Ashwood, the initial letters of the four places spelling out BATA . After a long day 4 very tired but happy council members made it to the finish line! Your support would be much appreciated and will help our work of advancing the cause of assistive technology.

Click on the link below to donate

“Putting BATA on the map”

 

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DSA Summit takes the high ground

Sunley Conference Centre, Northampton UniversityChair Antony Ruck reminded the 3o delegates at BATA’s recent Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) Summit in Northampton that DSA had enabled the UK to be a forerunner in supporting students, and that modernisation was appropriate, but needed to be carried out sensitively.  The UK AT industry leads the world, and initiatives like the DSA and Access to Work have wider benefits than just the immediate effect, and has implications across the economy and social care, he said.

In the years since the modernisation was announced there has been a large degree of uncertainty, with changes in government, ministers, departments and civil servants. The number of assistive technology service providers has declined from 21 to 8, and SFE data suggests that since the introduction of the £200 contribution there has been a 20% drop in the number of students obtaining the equipment recommended in their Needs Assessment Report. We now welcome Greg Boone to his role at DfE and look forward to working with him to safeguard the benefits of the DSA.

DSA: the last five years

Ian Litterick gave a detailed outline of the events that had occurred over the past five years including the announcement of the modernisation programme by David Willetts, BATA’s lobbying, efforts to move away from a three quotes requirement, meetings with ministers and civil servants, the successful campaign against the introduction of a single tender and the transfer of responsibility for DSA from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to the Education Department.

General discussion

 There was a request for a copy of the guidance and letter relating to the legal challenge. Eighty percent of calls from students were to do with software, not hardware, said one delegate.

The question of alternatives to the three quote system was raised. There was little desire among delegates to press for change at this stage.

One company had asked the Students Loan Company to link DSA2 letters to when students applied for DSA. It reported a 6.9% drop in equipment orders since the £200 charge was introduced and argued for more student choice of both supplier and equipment.

One delegate asked what the point of an assessment is when the opinions of assessors are ignored.

It was suggested that the All-party Parliamentary Group for AT should be used to effect change. It was also pointed out the APPG-AT did not have the ability to intervene directly in Government policy, but would be a very useful conduit to educate Parliamentarians on the benefits of AT and the DSA.

BATA was urged to define the value for money that AT provided to counter any possible move to single sourcing or framework contracts.

It was argued that we needed to improve the take up of technology by improving the training process, the implementation of technology and support for what is often an emotional journey towards using AT successfully.

It was suggested a BATA campaign to improve awareness of DSA. Students’ needs changed at different stages of their course.

Students were doubly disadvantaged in that they had to learn their way around a new institution as well as how to use AT. Coventry University is running tasters for potential students that could include training in the use of assistive software.

There was agreement among attendees that better information about DSA was required. Much of what was captured was inconsistent. Was it true, one attendee asked, that 25% of students did not take up NMH? Since it was accepted under 50% of students have any training under NMH, it was suggested that mandatory training should be a condition of a DSA grant.

BATA should embrace mainstream IT firms with an interest in AT and accessibility, such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon, because they raised awareness of AT. The Association should identify the requirements that students have as a counter to a possible move to the functional specification of AT.

BATA policy and next steps

The chair identified a number of key areas for attendees to consider and noted them on a flip chart. A number of individuals volunteered to follow-up with specific actions. The areas outlined were as follows:

  • Challenge to £200 charge
  • Functional specification as opposed to recommending named products
  • Student choice policy (DSA vs HEP reasonable adjustments)
  • Accreditation of trainers and assessors
  • Quality (value for money and HEP requirements)
  • Attraction and adoption
  • Better data (from BIS, SLC, QAG with consistent recording)
  • Lobbying (using All-Party Parliamentary Group for AT and promotion of the arguments for DSA)
  • Partnerships and relationships

Challenge to £200 charge

It was confirmed there was a decrease in the number of students applying for DSA of 17.5% after the introduction of the charge. “They are opting not to go for equipment with the result we are penalising those from more deprived backgrounds,” said one delegate.  The question was raised of how many higher education providers currently refund the £200 charge to see whether more might be encouraged to do the same.  Actions agreed were:

  • To lobby for £200 charge to be included on student loans.
  • Facilitate awareness raising of those universities that refunded the charge via student money advice services.
  • Press DFE to provide up-to-date data and to admit there has been a drop in applications.

Actions:

  • Lobby for the £200 charge to be added to student loans.
  • An earlier briefing document sent to MPs was to be crculated to MPs.

Functional specification

 BATA policy is to oppose any move to functional specification of specialist software and specialist hardware. The specification group that used to meet under the auspices of QAG is moribund and would be better moderated by DfE.

Actions:

  • To propose to DfE that the functional specification group should be outside QAG.
  • To create a policy for BATA

Student choice

How do we assist students in choosing the right kit and supplier under DSA? A student charter “to stop students being railroaded into unsuitable choices” was proposed. Students needed to be involved in modernisation and, operationally, given access to information about technology. One delegate argued for a page of advice on BATA’s website to guide students. It was pointed out that students don’t know they have a choice. The guidance should major on rights. Past DSA students could also provide testimonials.

Actions:

  • STo appeal to members for suggestions for a student advice page.
  • To draw up a student charter.

Accreditation

There is no accreditation for trainers at present. It was agreed that BATA’s policy should be to push for trainers to receive proper training and be accredited as such. Every student has the right to quality and trainers should understand the products they are recommending and their associated study skills. DBS should be a legal requirement for those who work with disabled students. It was suggested that trainers who were accredited should be BATA members. And that an NMH special interest group should be set up with a recruitment drive among NMH practitioners.

Actions:

  • Approach DfE with a view to the department mandating accreditation for trainers
  • Look into funding streams for setting up an accreditation scheme.
  • Draw up a list of NMH providers to be approached to join BATA.

Quality

 The summit agreed it was important in pushing forward the quality agenda to establish relationships with other stakeholders. Lobbying on quality was important, as was ensuring better data on key aspects of DSA. It was agreed that BATA policy should be to lay down minimum amounts of time for student training.

Attraction and adoption

 All students should be aware of DSA and BATA should work with schools, colleges and UCAS to raise their awareness. Suggestions for awareness raising included a Facebook and Twitter campaign and posters (deemed less effective than social media) with the aim of BATA being the go to source for information about DSA. There was discussion about the educationalist special interest group which is open to non-members. Reaching out to groups such as NASEN and NATSPEC was suggested as one way to drive more members to the group.

Actions:

  • Start a social media campaign.

Partnerships and relationships

Potential partners include IAC, CILIT, ADSHE, NADP, NMHA, PATOSS, AMOSSHE, ASASA, and AHEAD. They should be encouraged to join BATA and its special interest groups.

Actions:

  • Establish relationships with stakeholders
  • Include all attendees on the DSA group

John Lamb August 2017

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David Atkinson recalls an audience at the Vatican

David Atkinson with his wife and members of the Vincentian Family
David Atkinson (centre, next to the statue) with his wife Debbie and members of the Vincentian Family

I was invited into the Vatican City because an Italian friend of mine for over 30 years called Pepe became a priest and climbed the ladder to become a Monsignor working in the Vatican.

My wife Debbie and I had planned a a couple of weeks’ holiday in Italy and we were invited to stay in Rome for a few days with my friend at his house about 1 km from the Vatican.

I have to say not being a Catholic myself I am still trying to understand the different sections of the Catholic Church, but he is attached to section called the Vincentian Family, named after a 17th century French priest called St Vincent de Paul. There are Vincentian houses are all over the world.

The one we stayed in was the head house in which  the General Superior of the Vincentian Family lived. Apparently in every house of this kind in the world there is picture on the wall of the Pope and the General Superior called Father Tomaž Mavrič, a charming man who can speak in seven languages.

On our second night there we were invited to share a meal with him and many of the visiting priests from all over the world they had staying there.

This is where the discussion of what I am involved in, in the UK, came up. He was very interested in AT and how our systems in the UK work for our students so we had a good chat, translated in multiple languages to the others in the room.

I went on to explain how I am a member of BATA and that as a group we lobby and fight for our disabled people and students in every way we can.

I explained that through this system in the UK we are possibly the leaders in assistive technology throughout the world and would love to involve other countries.

OK, so a nice evening I thought and fantastic that I could share what we are doing in the UK. Then to our surprise, the next morning they said they would take us to see some of Rome where normal tourists don’t go, little did we know what was in store!

As we got close to St Peters we could see the main gates of the Vatican City. Up to the gates we went, the guards saluted our car and we drove straight in. They just looked around, smiled at me and Debbie and said they have someone for me to meet.

At this stage I was feeling kidnapped but in a nice way. We eventually arrived at a Bishop’s quarters where they introduced me and asked me to explain again about BATA and the UK’s way of looking after our students with learning needs, as they translated into Italian.

At the end I was thanked profusely and told to keep them informed of any changes and this information would be shared among the people who would be interested. All quite surreal at this point but they were very kind and then gave us a guided tour around the Vatican City.

I have no idea what if anything will come of it but just to get an interest in the work we do was fantastic. We have to remember that in Italy the Vatican City plays a major role in catering for people with special needs most of the people.

For me, if I have just planted a seed for them to maybe one day want to follow our lead it was well worth the time. As for myself and Debbie, well, how lucky are we?

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HMRC guidance on VAT on computer equipment for disabled people

Introduction

This is a draft of updated wording for guidance on zero rating computer equipment for disabled people.

It follows recent events including: the iansyst tribunal ruling,  HMRC’s decision not to appeal it; HMRC’s consequent proposal to remove the Extra Statutory Concession on computers because it is no longer necessary; discussions on detail between BATA and HMRC; and HMRC’s suggestion at the last meeting that BATA should itself suggest guidance that would meet BATA members’ needs for clarity and consistency.

VAT guidance on the topic comes in two places – paragraph 4.6 of VAT notice 701/7 on VAT reliefs for disabled and older people and HMRC’s internal manual which is published on the web. The latter would normally be expected to have a section elaborating on the topic for VAT staff who need to give further guidance to suppliers, charities and disabled people.

Ian Litterick

22/6/2017

VAT Notice 701/7: VAT reliefs for disabled and older people

(https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vat-notice-7017-vat-reliefs-for-disabled-people)

4.6 Computer devices and systems

Computer devices and systems are increasingly being used as aids to disability. Most are general use products which may be useful for disabled people but are designed to be used by disabled and non-disabled people alike including desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones and eReaders. Such products can only be bought VAT free when they are sold as part of an assistive technology system. This involves pre-installing additional specialist software specifically required by the disabled individual making the purchase, allowing the complete system to be defined as designed solely for use by that disabled person. The disabled person must sign a standard declaration that they are disabled and that the supply is for their domestic or personal use. The supplier must keep this as evidence for zero rating. See 3.6 above.  The declaration may not be necessary in respect of the Disabled Students’ Allowances scheme as only eligible persons are entitled to DSA but a copy of the report detailing the purchaser’s specific requirements must be kept.

If an assistive technology (AT) system can be liable to the zero-rated VAT treatment, then other “ancillary” supplies and services may also be zero rated if made as part of a single supply. (See 5 above. “Services of installation, repair, maintenance, warranty and adaptation of goods”). This includes installation and setup, repair, maintenance and training on the assistive technology system when the training is given as a part of the supply.

Training will often be a separate supply, in which case this will be subject to VAT.

The zero-rated relief does not also extend to the separate purchase of download software licenses not pre-installed as part of an AT system. These will be treated as e-services, liable to standard rated treatment, unless the software is supplied as physical goods.

Some supplies such as a Braille printer or Braille keyboard may also be zero rateable as part of an assistive technology system, or even when sold on their own, because they were themselves designed solely for use by disabled people. Other peripherals such as scanners, printers and cameras may also be zero rated if they form part of a single supply and are ancillary to the main supply.

In schemes such as the Disabled Students’ Allowances there is an independent assessment of need. Otherwise the supplier must record and keep evidence (on the eligibility declaration for example) as to why they have zero rated such elements as part of an assistive technology system. All decisions leading to zero rating must have their evidence recorded in an auditable trail for any subsequent inspection.

In order to zero rate individual products, whether hardware or software, the manufacturer or importer must certify that it has been designed solely for use by disabled people. A copy of this certificate should be provided to any reseller who intends to zero rate the product.  If in doubt, the manufacturer or importer should apply for confirmation from HMRC as per paragraph 4.5.3 above.

This approval process is not required for each assistive technology system that includes an off-the-shelf computer device, which is why suppliers are advised to keep auditable documentation of each decision that leads to zero rating the whole system. This is so they can evidence meeting all three criteria for the zero-rating of equipment and appliances under the VAT Act 1994 Schedule 8 Group 12 item 2(g). The equipment is:

(i)            designed solely for use by a disabled person,

(ii)           supplied to a disabled person (or a charity that makes it available for use by a disabled person), and

(iii)          is for domestic or the personal use of the disabled person.

Guidance for HMRC internal manual

https://www.gov.uk/hmrc-internal-manuals/vat-relief-for-disabled-people

VRDP1600 Computers

In many cases the specific treatment of VAT on assistive technology products supplied to disabled people is not material to the exchequer – either the supply is funded from government grants through schemes such as Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) or Access to Work (AtW), or the equipment is being purchased by a VAT registered employer. In these cases zero rating merely results in a redistribution between government departments. However, individual suppliers may seek rulings to ensure that they have no difficulties at VAT inspections and suppliers as a whole, e.g., through the British Assistive Technology Association, will seek rulings for the sake of consistency and fair competition. The rulings will also be important for those disabled people who are paying for equipment with their own money who may well be out of work or otherwise socially and economically disadvantaged.

HMRC has accepted the judgement of the First-Tier Tribunal in iansyst Ltd (TC05126) that assistive technology systems based on off-the-shelf computing equipment (including laptops, tablets and mobile phones) with assistive software preinstalled can be zero rated when supplied to disabled people for their domestic or personal use. Therefore, the view has been taken that such systems as a whole have been “designed solely for use by disabled people”, and thus come directly within Schedule 8 (Zero-Rating) of the VAT Act without the need for the Extra Statutory Concession which previously applied to computers.

The purpose of zero rating equipment for disabled people is to lower the additional costs that disabled people need to pay for their assistive technology, rather than to lower the cost of standard equipment that disabled people also need to buy.

Suppliers of assistive technology will generally prefer to zero rate supplies when they can do so. Thus  the question will arise: when is a supply ancillary to the main supply and so part of a single, zero rateable, supply, or when is it a separate supply and so liable to the standard rated treatment. Our guidance on Single and multiple supplies (VATSC80000) applies, but we have also given specific guidance in the past to try to encourage consistency. That specific guidance is in VAT Notice 701/7 at paragraph 4.6. and below.

An assistive technology system can be created, based on an off-the-shelf computing device, by pre-installing additional specialist software specifically required by the disabled individual making the purchase. This allows the complete system to be defined as designed solely for use by that disabled person and so be zero rateable. Some at least of the additional preinstalled software itself will also usually have been designed solely for use by disabled people, so is zero rateable in its own right when sold as physical goods rather than an electronic download. (If sold as a download, these will be treated as electronically supplied services under Article 59 (k) of EU Principal VAT Directive and Annexe II, and so be liable to standard rated treatment.) Additional preinstalled speech recognition may also allow zero rating of the complete system although the speech recognition was not specifically designed for disabled people. There may be other cases where the whole has been designed solely for use by disabled people, when none of the individual parts have.

AT systems will often be supplied with training on how to use the AT system. Suppliers may need guidance as to whether this supply is ancillary (and therefore also zero rateable) or a separate supply and therefore standard rated. A guide to being ancillary in this context is if it is recommended, quoted for (if applicable) and ordered in conjunction with the AT system, invoiced by the same supplier and supplied within a reasonable period of the main supply.

AT suppliers may also wonder about the correct treatment of extended warranties, which are often sold with AT systems.  Extended warranties are often written as insurance policies and so are exempt from VAT. However, extended warranties and insurance, when ordered sold and invoiced with the main supply, will often be ancillary to that supply and so carry the same VAT rate (e.g. zero if the main supply is zero rated.) See VAT Notice 701/36: insurance 4.2.1. They are ancillary if “they do not constitute an aim in themselves but rather a means of better enjoying the principal supply”.

Some supplies such as a Braille printer or Braille keyboard may also be zero rateable as part of an assistive technology system, or even when sold on their own, because they were themselves designed solely for use by disabled people. Other peripherals such as scanners, printers and cameras may also be zero rated if they form part of a single supply and are ancillary to the main supply.

For example, a camera could be a part of the zero-rateable system if it forms an integral part of the system to help a reading impaired person access text, but not if it is just to be used as an ordinary camera. A printer could be part of the zero-rateable system if the nature of the disability is such as to need paper based large print or printing on coloured paper, but not if the customer has no printing requirements specifically arising from their disability.

In order to zero rate individual products, whether hardware or software, the manufacturer or importer must certify that it has been designed solely for use by disabled people. A copy of this certificate should be provided to any reseller who intends to zero rate the product.  If in doubt, the manufacturer or importer should apply for confirmation from HMRC as per paragraph 4.5.3 above. The application for a letter of confirmation needs to include evidence about the design intention which may include:

  • Patent applications,
  • Design briefs,
  • Development discussions,
  • User trials,
  • Marketing literature and web pages,
  • Evidence that the manufacturer, publisher and/or importer specialise in products for people with disabilities.

None of these individual indicators are necessarily conclusive. The fact that a product can be useful to a non-disabled person is also not conclusive evidence that it has not been “solely” designed for disabled people.

Note – There has sometimes been confusion as to whether equipment can be supplied zero rated for work purposes. The VAT Act wording is “for domestic or personal use”. Assistive technology is by definition for personal use, even if this is in a work context. As mentioned above, in many cases this will be immaterial as the entity buying the equipment will be registered for VAT and the supply will not be directly to the disabled person. But purchase by an individual for work purposes can be zero rated where the personal use requirement is met.

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BATA YouTube Channel

Have you looked at our YouTube Channel? There are lots of useful resources for all sectors but especially higher education. BATA members have been busy sharing their content with you and our YouTube channel becomes a one-stop shop to see how assistive technology can really help students.

Take a look at BATA YouTube Channel , subscribe to individual providers and get the latest information on assistive technology. DSA assessors may find this a helpful resource

BATA YouTube Channel

 

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AT for the 21st century and beyond

Over 10 million people in the UK have some form of physical or sensory disability, and that number is rising steadily with the country’s ageing demographic profile. More than 65% of disabled people are over 65, a minority are born disabled.

This fact, combined with the continuing explosive growth of new technologies – mobile services, internet and mobile technologies – means that no one can ignore the issues surrounding the assistive technology and access to online services.

Since 1995 organisations have been required by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and later by the Equality Act, which replaced it, to make reasonable adjustments to their websites and IT systems to allow customers and employees to access them.

In the public sector the Disability Equality Duty, introduced in 2006, goes further; requiring authorities to draw up policies relating to all aspects of disabled access.

However, the evidence is that despite tougher laws, many disabled people are still excluded from taking part in our increasingly digital economy, with disastrous results in terms of their ability to work and live independently.

Businesses are losing out too: disabled people represent a market worth at least £240bn per year, according to estimates by the Institute of Employment Studies.

With disabled adults of working age only half as likely to be in work as non-disabled people, their exclusion is also a waste of skills.

The degree of assistance that people need in using IT varies enormously. However, solutions need not be complicated or too costly. Sometimes access will involve providing special purpose software or hardware, but in many cases it will be a matter of adjusting off-the-peg systems so that they are more comfortable to use.

Users may need help to set up systems, but in many cases users will be able to make changes themselves through built-in accessibility features. Users who have difficulties seeing or whose body movements are limited need most assistance.

Talking devices that use screen reader software and programs that magnify text or allow users to adjust the appearance of information are invaluable to people with sight problems or who suffer from dyslexia.

Those with physical difficulties may require other ways of entering data and controlling a system than via a conventional keyboard or a mouse. A variety of alternative devices are available to plug into desktop systems including trackballs, switches and adapted keyboards.

What technologies will enhance the lives of disabled people in the future?

In the main they are technologies that are going to affect everyone, but disabled people have their own particular take on these developments and possibly stand to gain a lot more.

3-D printing is already being widely used as a cheap means of producing custom built adaptations for wheelchairs, orthotics and other assistive devices.

Wearable technology such as glasses, watches and clothes promises a much more intimate relationship between digital services and disabled users. Instead of bulky input devices such as keyboards, wearable computing can be controlled through gestures and eye movements.

Driverless cars promise the freedom of the road to those who can’t drive a car today because they cannot see well enough or manipulate the controls. “Too many people are underserved by the current transport system. They are blind, or too young to drive, or too old, or intoxicated,” says Google’s founder Sergey Brin.

Robots are likely to make a big impact on disabled people’s lives in terms of providing care and the kind of services previously only available from other humans.

All of these technologies and lots more besides are going to be needed as the world’s population ages rapidly. Between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will double from about 11% to 22%, according to the World Health organisation.

Among these people the greatest causes of disability are visual impairment, dementia, hearing loss and osteoarthritis. Older disabled people will put massive strain on our ability to care for these people. Technology will be vital in supporting them and enabling them to live safe, fulfilling lives.

John Lamb

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Raising the awareness of assistive technology

Assistive technology has come of age when members of parliament decide the time is right to set up a group dedicated to the field.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology is composed of members of both houses of parliament and supported by outside organisations such as BATA.

The Group aims to disseminate knowledge, generate debate and facilitate engagement with assistive technology.

The timing is spot on since this small, vital and ingenious area of technological endeavour is entering a perfect storm of change.

From the north, the chill winds of austerity and cuts are still blowing and are likely to continue to do so for some time.

Despite falling prices, disabled people continue to struggle to fund the equipment that in many areas of life is vital for accessing digital services.

From the south, balmier winds are blowing. The apps revolution and plunging manufacturing costs mean that the range of assistive technology available to disabled people has never been greater.

Assistive technology even looks prettier and is certainly more available, as increasing numbers of mainstream manufacturers incorporate assistive elements into their products.

Hearing aids connected to the internet, spectacles that can identify people’s faces and driverless cars are just some of the innovations that promise to give disabled people greater independence.

Further turbulence is being injected into this high tech weather system by difficulties in developing assistive technology and persuading people to try out new things.

Although there is no shortage of bright ideas coming forward it is becoming more difficult to bring them to market as money and expertise becomes scarcer.

It is also important to manage expectations. Often people can have exaggerated ideas about how quickly and easily AT can deliver. It requires support, training and proper supervision to be effective.This is doubly so when 65% of disabled people are offer 65.

The outlook for assistive technology in the Palace of Westminster looks bright but outside the Westminster bubble, however, the weather is much more changeable.

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Switch Access

For those who have little or no manual dexterity and fine motor skills switch access is an alternative to using a keyboard.

What is a switch? Essentially it is like using a light switch. It is just an “on/off” device that toggles between those two actions. Switches can be simple round plastic coloured discs and can be either wired or wireless.

What is important is there needs to be an interface between the switch and the computer. A programmable switch box such as Crick’s USB Switch Box (£99) is one such device. The Switch Box allows keys on a keyboard such as the space bar and enter keys to be programmed to work as a switch.

 

Some physical disabilities require a method of keeping the device in place such as a felt-back board which switches can be velcro’d to like the Maxcess Tray. Clamps that fix to tables and wheelchairs may also be needed.

Having a reliable means of access is important for switch users. Also it is important to consider the eye-level view of the user – to see what they see. Lastly , there needs to be good posture that works in the best way for the condition of the user

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Unleashing true potential through AT

In the UK, the government has made great strides in improving the lives of the disabled from an early age. The government’s Disabled Students’ Allowances and Access to Work schemes ensure that those with dyslexia continue to be supported throughout their life.

On the downside, those with dyslexia can often fail to self-identify, meaning they can go undiagnosed for many years, potentially struggling in silence with the condition.

To underline the consequences of this situation, research by the World Literacy Foundation found that illiteracy costs the UK economy more than £81 billion each year. Employers must therefore begin to encourage an open culture in which workers can unashamedly declare their dyslexia – if only for the benefit of the wider UK economy.

In fact, the longer it takes to intervene to diagnose literacy difficulties, the greater the cost, not just financially, but socially as well. Analysis by the Department for Education showed that pupils who entered secondary school with very low literacy skills had an exclusion rate five times that of pupils who were more able to read and write, while studies by Dyslexia Action have demonstrated that there is an over-representation within the UK prison population of those with literacy difficulties and dyslexia.

If you add to these alarming figures the unfortunate number of students who leave education with poor results and poorer self-esteem because of their dyslexia, it’s clear that those with literacy difficulties risk being pigeonholed and led to believe they are inferior from an early age. We must act now to intervene early and ensure literacy difficulties are identified and acted upon swiftly, so as to save the development of more pernicious issues further down the road.

Encouraging or helping an individual to self-identify can be a catalyst for change in a person’s life and bring about a huge benefit psychologically as they begin to navigate issues they had perhaps struggled with before. Every provider of assistive technology knows the transformative effect it can have on a person with dyslexia, a SEN student, a struggling reader or writer, a person with low literacy levels or an EAL learner, helping them to be more independent and engaged learners, whilst allowing them to better reach their potential.

Tools such as text-to-speech can benefit struggling readers with comprehension and understanding. Mind mapping software can assist with brainstorming and the management of complex information for those who struggle with organisation. Screen masking features can tint the screen to make it easier to read for those with Irlens syndrome or simply provide contrast for ease of reading and audio making tools allow for greater independence to learn on the go.

Assistive technology is just one enabler for those who suffer from literacy difficulties, but it’s certainly the most cost-effective method by saving the cost of additional teachers. Most importantly, students should never feel they are a ‘special’ or ‘unusual’ case. In aid of this, assistive technology equals the playing field by allowing students to participate in class at their own pace, whilst playing to their strengths.

Above all, assistive technology makes for more confident and happier individuals, emotionally happy and more ready to grip life’s chances. BATA is a key organisation to provide support and information for those looking for suitable AT resources to suit individual needs.

Like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Jamie Oliver, who have dyslexia, there is an innovator in each of us – and identifying the right AT support may just be the first step in unleashing true potential.

Elaine Crawford

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Ensuring a safe and more satisfying old age

Everyone experiences impairments to their sight, hearing, cognitive powers and mobility as they get older: over 65s represent the largest group of disabled people.

Fortunately there is a growing range of assistive products that enhance the capabilities of older people and enable them to live more independently. Many assistive features are now found in mainstream consumer products.

Magnification systems help combat sight loss and enable people to continue reading despite poorer vision.

Modern hearing aids that eliminate background noise are essential to help people overcome hearing impairment, as are smartphone-based text relay services that turn voice into text for those who are profoundly deaf.

Technology can also assist people with dementia, safeguarding them by means of tracking systems and acting as a prompt, reminding them of the information they need to live independently. Voice recognition is a boon for those who can neither use a keyboard or push buttons.

Most people prefer to continue living in their own homes, if they can, rather than move into care institutions. Assistive technologies and sensors in the home that monitor people’s movements lead to an increased sense of safety and security at home and reassurance for relatives.

They can also play an important role in making the best use of scarcer manpower in a time of reduced budgets for social care.

Unfortunately, assistive technology is not always well understood by those involved with caring for older people. There is a lack of readily available information and not enough attention is paid to training care professionals in the application and management of technology.

Of course, technology is an additional cost for older people and although prices have been coming down in recent years more could be done in this area.

Some technology is available through Government schemes – wheelchairs and adapted cars, for example – but more needs to be done to make more assistive technology available free or at a low-cost.

Product and software designers must aim to follow universal design principles, including assistive features in products that are designed for everyone to use.

They must put themselves in the place of older people, simulating disabilities if need be, and testing their designs with older users.

Simplicity of design is the key to creating products that can be easily used by those who may not be familiar with technology. Designers must also bear in mind the need to keep costs as low as possible.

Developments are in the pipeline which could make life easier for many seniors.

Sympathetically designed care robots will augment human carers and provide round the clock attention for housebound older people. Driverless cars will keep others mobile for much longer, enabling older people to live more independent lives.

The widespread use of telecare systems to monitor and raise alarms will enable many more older people to live at home and lower the cost of their care.

At the same time all of these innovations must be carefully designed to avoid depersonalising and isolating the vulnerable people who use them.

John Lamb

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New VAT guidelines on the way

New guidance on which assistive technology products and services can be zero-rated for VAT will be coming soon from HMRC.

Member Ian Litterick of iansyst has been working with HMRC to write updated guidelines for both companies and VAT officials.

The guidance will make it clear for the first time that mobile devices can be sold zero-rated for VAT, if they meet certain conditions.

“Computer devices and systems are increasingly being used as aids to disability,” writes Litterick, who won a landmark VAT tribunal case in 2016 when he argued that a mobile phone was part of the CapturaTalk application he sold and should be supplied to disabled users without VAT.

“Most are general use products which may be useful for disabled people but are designed to be used by disabled and non-disabled people alike including desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones and ereaders,” Litterick continues in the draft guidelines.

“Such products can be bought VAT free when they are sold as part of an assistive technology system.

“This involves pre-installing specialist software specifically required by the disabled individual making the purchase, which enables the complete system to be defined as designed solely for use by that disabled person.”

The VAT relief does not extend to the separate purchase of download software licenses that are not pre-installed as part of an AT system.

These will be treated as e-services, according to EU law, and liable to standard rated treatment, unless the software is supplied as physical goods, in other words on a disc or other storage device.

Read the draft guidelines in full and email your comments to Ian Litterick.

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Speaker launches All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology

BATA is one of the founding members of a newly formed All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology and will be at the forefront of changes in policy in this area.

APPGs are an informal group of members of both Houses of Parliament who join together to pursue a particular topic or interest.  Members of the group will be advocates in parliament, act as ambassadors, and raise awareness of the assistive technology agenda in the UK.

The APPG for Assistive Technology was launched on Monday 6th March by Speaker of the House, Rt Hon John Bercow and included contributions from Seema Malhotra MP, Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, Hannah Rose, an assistive technology user, and Neil Heslop OBE who is Chief Executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability.

The event was sponsored by Microsoft.

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NHS takes stock of campaign to give disabled patients greater access

Adoption is the priority for NHS’ Accessible Information Standard: delegates look for more stick and carrot at AbilityNet conference

By John Lamb

Sign language users visiting Noble’s hospital on the Isle of Man are handed an iPad connected to a video signing service when they arrive, to enable them to communicate with hospital staff.

This striking example of how technology can overcome the barriers to communication encountered by disabled people using health and social services has up until now been a rare one.

A 2009 report by RNIB found that then the majority of blind and partially sighted people were not consulted about their information needs,. The study claimed that 95% of those given personal health information by their GPs were not asked which reading format they required it in.

It is a problem NHS England is now taking seriously. For the past six years it has been working on how to remove the blocks that make it difficult for disabled people to access care.

Some patients struggle to read or understand vital information relating to their treatment. Others have difficulty using the online and telephone services the NHS increasingly relies on to book appointments, carry out consultations, deliver prescriptions and communicate the results of tests.

In future the health service will depend much more on digital communications as patients’ vital signs are monitored remotely and their care is managed electronically.

In a bid to make these channels inclusive, the NHS introduced a legally binding standard in August last year to push GPs and hospitals into making their services more accessible.

The Accessible Information Standard (AIS) is intended to ensure patients can communicate effectively with both health and social services.

As a result large print letters, audio recordings, Braille print and sign language interpreters are now much more likely to be in use in surgeries, clinics and hospitals in England.

Care providers are required to follow a five step plan that involves identifying the communication needs of a patient, recording them, flagging up what is needed to staff, sharing that information and finally ensuring a patient’s needs are met.

“We understand that we need to work with people who need information in different formats, people who use BSL or read Braille for example, and groups and organisations with expertise in producing or promoting accessible information and communication,” said Sarah Marsay, Public Engagement Account Manager at NHS England (pictured above), who runs the AIS project.

Recently Marsay commissioned a review to find out how well the standard is working. Professionals, patients and suppliers were polled on their views, with the intention of revising the standard in the light of their feedback by July.

“Adoption has not been universal it would be naive to say anything different,” she told a recent conference organised by IT charity AbilityNet to debate the standard.

“Our review is looking at the impact (of the standard) and any adjustments that are needed. Then we will reissue the specification and implementation guidelines,”

While delegates were generally agreed AIS was a robust standard, many were concerned that it was not being adopted widely enough. There were calls for greater efforts at enforcing the law, despite the fact that AIS is included in all NHS contracts.

“Can the standard be delivered?” asked British Assistive Technology Chair Antony Ruck, who led a session on how AIS should reflect the role of digital technology in enabling patient communications. “It is a matter of will and capability.”

Others felt more could be done to emphasise the economic benefits to health organisations.

A decision to exclude websites from the standard drew fire from some of the 60 people who attended the event at the headquarters of the British Computer Society. Although patients may be directed to a website as a way of making information more accessible, sites themselves are not covered.

“That is another piece of work,” explained Marsay. “AIS does not set out accessibility standards for an NHS site but of course they are not unrelated. A website can be an opportunity to provide accessibility: it can be an alternative to the phone and certainly be more accessible to people using screen readers.”

Accessibility is a complex business. One delegate from the London Borough of Camden, which runs a call centre fielding enquiries from people using a whole range of services, was concerned to know how to flag up disabled people when they called in.

Dr Howard Leicester MBE, a long-time campaigner for better patient services, underlined how important the standard was to specific groups of disabled people.

“The life expectancy of those with learning difficulties is lower than the rest of the population because of their communication problems, while sight impaired people often miss appointments because they cannot read the letters they are sent.”

However, technology was itself a barrier to implementing the standard. GP systems, for example, need to be upgraded to include routines for recording and flagging up patients’ communication needs. Not all suppliers had done that.

Others saw non-technical barriers to adoption of the standard. Andrew McCracken of charity National Voices said there were “great pockets of good things going on. But it is not just a question of technology there are bigger barriers: cultural and political barriers.”

Jean Irvine OBE, IT Accessibility Champion, was convinced the standard was fine. “It is all about implementation and that requires that all of the bodies come together and put the patient first.”

William Danckwerts, of Panlogic, a company that builds government solutions, also said the standard looked to be a robust model. The question was how to drive adoption; perhaps through a kite mark system.

He pointed out that some services were not accessible at the moment because of new devices and services. “If we are not careful we will become less rather than more accessible,” he warned.

“Before the introduction of the standard there were lots of road shows and good literature,” said Mike Page of RNIB Business. “We were expecting (GP) surgeries to get in touch but we have only had 20-25 enquiries.

“People have adopted their own best practice. We need to measure where we are today and how we can progress.”

Although there is clearly some way to go before the Isle of Man experience is the norm for disabled patients in England, there is no lack of determination to get there and in as short a time as possible.

Both BATA and AbilityNet will be lending their weight to this all-important project.

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BBC highlights experiences of disabled people as workers and consumers

The BBC is exploring the experiences of disabled people in the workforce and as consumers in a week of special news coverage entitled Disability Works.

Coming from across the UK and around the world, the stories will focus on the experience of disabled entrepreneurs and employees. They will examine how different businesses are innovating to help disabled people and look at the power of the purple pound in the UK and global economy.

Graeme Whippy, a consultant and speaker at BATA’s AGM, was one of the first people to feature in the coverage. He talked about the barriers disabled people face in work.

As part of the week, BBC News is reporting from Mumbai where a UK company is hiring blind people as perfumers, and from Wales where a farmer paralysed after a car accident has been able to continue working, thanks to a specially adapted tractor.

They are also reporting on how the fashion industry has responded to disabled consumers and hear from the South African firm employing disabled welders.

The main day of output is Wednesday 22 February when reports appear across all BBC News output.

The broadcaster has also announced a £1 million scheme to recruit, train and develop journalists with disabilities, both visible and hidden.

Over the next year, twelve new positions will be created in BBC News’ Mobile and Online teams. The roles will range from broadcast journalists to assistant editors, with the successful applicants working across a wide range of content.

The first of the posts will be advertised shortly. Details will be available on the BBC Careers website.