AT for the 21st century and beyond

30 May 2017

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.