The art of AT diplomacy: an interview with Antony Ruck

25 March 2020

“When I was a kid I had ambitions be an actor or a spaceman,” says Antony Ruck, recently retired Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association. “I certainly didn’t plan to make a career in assistive technology.”

Although he never fulfilled his childhood dream, Antony tried just about everything else before settling on AT. A mathematics graduate from a farming family in the Forest of Dean, he worked variously at a wine merchant, an interior design company, a chocolate firm and a chicken factory before taking a job at Wyvern Business Systems.

The Hereford company provided IT services to local businesses at the time, but a chance encounter set both Wyvern and Antony on a completely different path.

“One day I took a call from the Access Centre Manager at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, complaining about a lack of information for her students. In those days disabled students had to buy and install their own AT, it was all down to them.”

Students claiming Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) had to purchase each piece of kit from a different supplier which made the process very stressful for them and delayed their studies.

Antony asked himself 'why couldn’t Wyvern buy everything for the students and install it for them?' A question that led to the company becoming an AT service provider, supplying all of a student’s needs.

“The industry was maturing: for many years people had been doing things in isolation. What now seem like obvious steps such as delivery, set-up, training and support didn’t happen in those very early days.”

Improved delivery and better ideas on how to serve disabled students led on to the establishment of the first quality assurance framework for the DSA grant scheme.

Meanwhile, Antony moved on to Barry Bennett, based in Bolton. The company had become an ATSP in 1994 under the guidance of Antony Bennett. However, the fast-growing company was very much regionally based. Working together, the two Antonys expanded the company’s business coverage nationwide, with Antony Ruck becoming General Manager of the company.

With the AT bit very much between his teeth, Antony struck out on his own as a consultant, initially setting up under the Archent name.

“There were lots of things that I wanted to do that couldn’t be done working for someone else,” he explains. Among his new ventures was an appointment to the British Standards Institution’s Accessibility Co-ordination group. 

“It’s not enough to consider the needs of disabled people – they need to be involved in creating standards,” he says. “The Accessibility Coordination group makes that happen. It includes registered disabled and non-disabled people who have expert knowledge in a particular area from a consumer’s point of view.”

Later Antony launched the Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference (ATEC) with Reeza Awoodun. Now a regular fixture in the AT calendar, the event has attracted many of the leading thinkers in the AT field and provided a platform for AT companies to demonstrate their technology.

Consultancy also included a long-term contract at software company Sonocent and a spell advising the Business Disability Forum as a subject specialist. Moving on, Antony co-founded Aventido Limited which has developed into an international AT marketing and PR company.

It was late 2014 when Antony joined BATA’s council, becoming Chair in early 2015.

“It has always been a learning curve,” says Antony. “At the time I became involved the sector very combative with Government bodies; now we take a more collaborative approach. We have gone from asking to be involved (with policymakers) to being asked to be involved, which has meant we are very much more on the front foot. The biggest thing we have achieved is in affecting Government policy.”

Throughout its existence - it was founded in 2010 - BATA has continued to grow and develop, says Antony. In that time, it has gone from being an industry association to being a sector association representing all professionals including tech companies, assessors, corporate users and individual practitioners.

Antony reckons a key element in this has been the introduction of special interest groups. “They have enabled BATA to concentrate on specific topics. They have encouraged the involvement of members and helped us engage with sector concerns.”

The introduction of remote meetings, says Antony, was a big step forward in enabling that engagement, allowing people to network and learn from each other. “Our increasing membership has been achieved by listening to people.”

One of the aims of BATA is to promote the UK’s AT businesses. “We have a huge amount to teach other countries. The UK AT sector is very well respected. UK products are widely regarded as the best,” Antony points out.

With that in mind Antony reached out in 2018 to BATA’s counterparts in Europe and America. The process began at the annual exhibition of the AT Industry Association (ATIA) in the US where Antony met with Christoph Mueller of the German association BEH. Together they set about establishing Digital AT Europe (DATEurope), a pan-European industry association.

“On the back of that meeting it was clear that while the US had its organisations, Europe lacked a focus point. One of the main aims of DATEurope is to ensure that everyone benefits by identifying best practice and taking it across every country.”

Antony is keenly aware of the benefits of AT. “When we talk of benefits, we talk about how AT helps disabled people in work, education and day-to-day living. A lot of AT products benefit everyone but the technology is constantly changing.”

“For example, voice activated technologies and AI are really making a difference to people’s lives. Equally, mobile phones were a huge step forward. And I am excited by what may happen over the next 10 years.”

Increasingly AT is being incorporated into mainstream products and Antony welcomes this, but warns of the need for specialists to be on hand. “Increased access is a good thing. But the danger is that people do not realise that not everything can be used by all people. Mainstream providers do not always realise they have a duty of care.”

Antony sums up his five years as Chair: “I have been blessed by working with great people, who have helped us understand what users need and what government wants. Working with the Council has been fantastic, a huge education and an honour. In all honesty, developing my diplomacy skills has been my biggest challenge; bringing together competing companies, ideas and agendas. I sincerely hope I have helped BATA move forward and develop.”

His advice for Rick Bell, his successor? “Make the most of the advice and resources of people involved in BATA. Together the membership can achieve so much more than individual companies and organisations.”