According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association, assistive technology “(AT) is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” AT includes hearing aids, wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, braille, canes, spectacles, text-to-speech software, and so on.
The number of people who need assistive technology in the world today is currently estimated at about one billion. That figure is projected to double by the year 2030 and refers to people with disabilities, impairments, or restricted mobility who need the help of items, products, or software for proper functioning, independence, and general well-being.
Although many people are estimated to need access to these adaptative devices, only 10 percent of them have access to them. Several factors can be identified as the reasons why there is such a gap between how many people need and how many people have access to AT. For sustainability to be achieved in these processes, certain structural changes need to be implemented. The role of knowledge and technology as an enabler also needs to be emphasized.
One of the major hindrances to equitable access to these aiding devices is finance. Most people who need this do not have the wherewithal to acquire the appropriate assistive technology. AT, if made affordable, would deliver access to quality education as well as facilitate social participation and integration for users. Due to the huge cost of acquiring new technology aids, charity services often deliver low-quality pre-used products.
It doesn’t help that assistive product delivery virtually does not exist at a national level in many low- and mid-income countries like Nigeria. This means that the members of the poorer demographic must wait for donations and charity services which can be inconsistent. In addition to this, lack of instructor training and subsequent abandonment of technology as well stand as a hindrance to making access to these aids equitable.
To make access to AT fair and square, the government, NGOs, as well as businesses need to see the value of providing the devices and equipment as they promote equitable living for all. The articles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) and other international standards relating to disability, also need to be reconstructed to make sense of the priorities, needs, and struggles of people with disabilities (PWDs) in low- and middle-income countries. The sustainability of the existing international laws and protocols is vital for effective access to these life-changing devices.
An example of the effect of a governmental policy on the accessibility of assistive technology is the enactment of the National Policy on Disability (2006) in Uganda. This policy established a rehabilitation and resettlement scheme that includes vocational rehabilitation services and sheltered workshops that focus on employable skills training and orthopedic workshops. The policy also created an avenue for assistive products to be manufactured with parts that can be repaired, maintained, and replaced locally.
Local production and expertise development makes product design more climate and context-specific. It also encourages economic growth by generating new business and employment opportunities. Furthermore, the cost of materials would be reduced thereby reducing price volatility and enhancing supply security.
In conclusion, the government as well as NGOs and business owners have vital roles to play in ensuring equitable access to assistive technology. It is crucial that all hands be on deck; the government and policymakers implementing appropriate policies to provide an environment for assistive technology to be easily accessed, businesses factoring inclusivity and accessibility into their products, and NGOs promoting and integrating assistive technology by lobbying the government and business to see the value of providing the devices and equipment.
Here’s a link to the full publication by TTSWG