The past year has been a busy one. The Government continues to see assistive technology as an easy target for savings on welfare budgets.
Disabled Students Allowances (DSA), Access to Work, communications aids and zero-rated VAT on assistive technology are just some of the areas of AT that have come under the spending spotlight.
Government strategy is two-pronged: first to shift responsibility for buying systems and supporting them away from government and towards organisations, under the guise of the Equality Act.
Second, to take advantage of falling prices to cut back on the funding of grant schemes. There is a widespread view that a majority of disabled people can use their own smartphones and free apps instead of specialised assistive systems.
While there is no doubt the accessibility of mainstream systems has improved massively, purpose-built assistive technology backed up with proper training and support is still vital to independent living.
BATA’s aim is to ensure that disabled people are not adversely affected by these changes so we have been engaging with government departments to explain to them the technology needs of disabled people and to work with them to ensure disabled people are not disadvantaged.
We have lobbied MPs, had regular meetings with civil servants, responded to consultations and come forward with their own proposals. And as a result have at least been able to make our voice heard.
On DSA, for example, we have argued that the one stop shop is the best way to support students and deliver value for money to the taxpayer. And we are working with BIS officials to ensure a new system, based on so-called framework procurement, is as effective as possible.
So far as VAT is concerned we have urged HMRC to maintain this valuable tax break and to extend it by updating its definition of manufacturing to ensure laptops and associated assistive software can be sold free of tax.
In other areas we have tried to widen the use of AT, in public exams, for example. In the autumn we brought together representatives of the many organisations involved in public examinations to review progress in this area and to chart a way forward.
We haven’t spent all our time in smoke-filled rooms. Council members have attended a variety of events to speak about BATA’s work, including Bett, Sight Village and the BCS. We have also worked on our internal communications experimenting with free collaboration and conferencing systems to work together more effectively.
We have also made efforts to expand our membership, with some success This year has seen a steady stream of new members from various professional backgrounds. As the only paid member of staff – I am employed for one day per week – I am conscious of the need to deliver value for money to members.
That means engaging with you, responding to your needs and providing a forum for the exchange of ideas. If you have any ideas for further projects or would like to be involved with any of our activities do contact myself or chair Antony Ruck. We hope to be able to develop special interest groups to work with the council to broaden the range of issues we are involved in. Together with BATA’s hardworking council I am looking forward to 2016, which will no doubt bring its own challenges and rewards.