Chairs recall the first ten years of BATA

27 January 2021

Martin Littler 2010 to 2012

Martin Littler, founder of Inclusive Technology, was stung into setting up BATA when a civil servant remarked that the AT sector consisted of “men in sheds”. Martin wrote to leading AT organisations proposing an association and 27 of them met at the Institute of Directors and agreed to join. BATA launched during BETT at the Olympia Hilton hotel with Martin in the chair.

“The implication is that we are a piddling industry and this may explain why we are not thought able to receive invitations to tender when the sole subject of the tender is assistive technology,” said Martin at the time. “Banding together offers new and cost-effective opportunities for influence and publicity for AT.”

Martin had not been slow in seeking opportunities for influence. A debate in the House of Lords hosted by Lady Walmsley led to the 2008 Bercow report on services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

Early meetings saw speakers such as the broadcaster Peter White, Vernon Coaker, Minister for Schools and Learning, and Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Children and Families Minister, address BATA members. Later Martin was an enthusiastic supporter of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for AT and hosted a meeting with Angela Rayner in Manchester to announce the formation of the Group.

“The setting up of BATA came at a key moment: the election of a Tory government, austerity and the introduction of the iPad, which really shook up the industry” says Martin.

A bonfire of non-governmental organisations known as quangos, which saw the demise of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) that provided support and equipment to schools, was another great loss, says Martin.

BATA was helped in responding to these threats by the appointment of Barbara Phillips CBE, a former senior civil servant well used to walking the corridors of power. Barbara was able to put the case for AT at an international Government conference at Lancaster House in London and she commissioned a comprehensive survey of the AT industry.

Mark McCusker 2012 to 2015

When Texthelp CEO Mark McCusker took the chair “it was a period of turbulence in the DSA with the announcement of modernisation by the minister David Willetts,” he says. “The crisis had the effect of unifying the AT service providers. Although I do not see BATA as a vendor organisation, it dominated our thinking for some years.”

Mark oversaw a lobbying campaign on DSA that involved talks with MPs, questions in the House of Commons and a meeting with the universities minister Greg Clarke.   “It was the start of the time when we were able to command the attention of key influencers.”

With a strong interest in school education, Mark organised two conferences on accessible exams, an issue that schools and exam boards were just coming to terms with at the time.  “Essentially you can’t just introduce technology at exam time: you need to plan ahead.”

What of BATA’s future? Mark is clear that there is a long-term existential threat to the AT sector from much larger mainstream technology companies. “That threat has always been there,” says Mark. “I remember when Microsoft introduced the Narrator -screen reader, the industry went into a tail-spin, but it survived. BATA needs to get its members to innovate in areas such as machine learning. If they don’t do that then they won’t prosper.”

He sees a continuous role for BATA in lobbying Government. “There is going to be huge pressure on budgets and a massive role for BATA in protecting spending on disability.”

Antony Ruck 2015 to 2020

Under Antony Ruck, DSA was still very much a live issue, but BATA began to expand its activities to include summits - on DSA and the workplace - the introduction of webinars and three fundraising walks that involved 29 people covering 580 miles.

Special interest groups were another area promoted by Antony. “They have enabled BATA to concentrate on specific topics. They have encouraged the involvement of members and helped us engage with sector concerns,” he says. The strategy paid off with membership rising by 50% over the five years.

He also played a major role in establishing relations with outside organizations, including the establishment of a pan-European organization called DAT Europe.

“At the time I became involved the sector was very combative with Government bodies; we adopted a more collaborative approach. We went from asking to be involved (with policymakers) to being asked to be involved, which has meant we were very much more on the front foot.

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.

Increasingly AT is being incorporated into mainstream products: voice activated technologies and AI are developments that are really making a difference to people’s lives.  Antony welcomes this, but warns of the need for specialists to be on hand: mainstream providers do not always realise they have a duty of care.

Antony sums up his five years as Chair: “I was 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.”