The role of the EU to ensure the uptake of person-centred assistive technology
by Evert-Jan Hoogerwerf
What we all should know:
-Technology for persons with disabilities is a human rights enabler. Assistive technology unlocks human potential and breaks the link between a person’s health condition and a predetermined social destiny.
-Digital inclusion of all is a condition for the development of sustainable and prosperous societies.
Although over the years a lot of public resources have gone in the development of platforms for digital services and technologies to support independent living and ageing in place, there are only few examples of the successful large-scale deployment of these technologies. Maybe, more money should be invested in less innovative technologies and more in the social, educational and employment contexts of deployment.
As a matter of fact, one of the main factors for the lack of scaling up of results from pilot projects and their transfer to other contexts is the lack of deep understanding of all the factors that impact on the adoption of technology by social and health care providers and by more vulnerable citizens of Europe and worldwide.
The rapid and smooth diffusion of smart phones and tablets has made many of us blind for more profound factors that impact on successful technology transfer and on the uptake, non-uptake or abandonment of technology by specific groups, especially for psychological, educational and cultural factors.
If “leaving no one behind” is more than a slogan, it is a “must” to address these factors in research, education, social and economic interventions at all levels. All European institutions should increase efforts to bridge that digital gap, in Europe and worldwide, grasping all deriving social, cultural, political and economic (!) benefits.
The digital divide can only be bridged if specific competence is developed, both among professionals in formal and informal education, including social care, and among the users of person-centred technologies.
Politically speaking “disability and technology” seems no longer an issue and has disappeared from the radar of many politicians and policymakers, including funding programmes. More attention is going to healthy ageing, which is fine, there is a need and many issues connect the challenges that both groups are facing, but more should be done to reduce the disabling barriers persons with disabilities are facing during their entire lives.
Where attention for disability still exists, it is often fenced and very often not mainstreamed. Asking a representative of DG Connect (EC) during a public debate on digital skills development about those of persons with disabilities, the answer was: “that issue belongs to another unit”. As a matter of fact, apparently none of the more than 1.000 delegates to the 2018 Digital Assembly in Sofia was a disabled person.
-The setting up of a European Innovation Partnership Against the Digital Divide.
-To co-design and establish at all levels, incl. European level, independent competence centres on disability, technology and inclusion, with no commercial interests, able to bridge the gap between available technologies and the needs or wishes expressed by persons with disabilities, older citizens and social care providers.
-To review the public procurement legislation, facilitating the opportunities for public authorities to consolidate innovative services that are co-designed and produced with NGO’s and organisations of disabled persons.
Funding and instruments
Regarding European funding programmes and instruments, the following is recommended:
-To mainstream disability in all policy and funding programmes, whilst recognising the specific barriers that persons with disabilities and those supporting them, might meet in having equal access to the benefits the programmes wish to create.
-To include in open calls for research and development not only requirements regarding ethics and gender, but also regarding the social impact of technology development and the associated risks of the same technology to be developed.
-To majorly link in research programmes the development of technologies to social innovation projects.
-To incentivize in the development of new products and services user-driven design methodologies, as well as Universal Design principles and high accessibility standards.
-To exclude from direct or indirect European funding projects that aim at building large institutions (more than 20 places) for persons with dependency needs. This is to fight institutionalisation and to foster a culture of true independent, integrated, community-based living for persons with disabilities.
-To make available funding for investments in technology to support innovation in social care service delivery. This to foster the use of technology to enhance deinstitutionalisation and the development of alternative housing solutions, such as independent living, co-housing, small communities, etc.
-To give, generally speaking, priority under the various programmes to projects with an inclusive approach and in particular to those aiming at the development of digital skills for all, of inclusive educational approaches, of strategies to enhance the employability of persons with disabilities and on the (mandatory) professional development of staff.
-To increase in ESF+ the opportunities of direct access to grants by competent civil society organisations without the intervention of governments or local authorities who might have different political priorities and who are often less efficient in spending.
-To have the outcomes of national and regional policies that directly impact on the lives of persons with disabilities (e.g. accessibility, social inclusion, etc.), as well as future ESF+ funded projects, evaluated by external independent agencies, and not by the governments and funding bodies themselves.
-To support capacity building to enable regional stakeholders to take advantage of ERDF (European regional development funds) to promote more and better social innovation projects, with emphasis on digital inclusion, technology support for social care, etc.
-The EU to actively support the GATE initiative of the WHO aiming at advancing the use of Assistive Technology worldwide to enhance lives and to reach the sustainable development goals.
Thanks to Steve Barnard, Peter Cudd, John Dinsmore, Maite Ferrando, Anne Kanto-Ronkanen, Chapal Khasnabis, Katerina Mavrou, Sarah Weston and Luc de Witte for commenting on an earlier version of this statement.
 Ref. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
 Ref. GLIC Position Paper Modello di Centro Ausili (Italian only) https://www.centriausili.it/glic/default.asp?az=vwp&IdPag=28&IdCat=7
 Ref. Art 19 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
 Ref. Art. 32 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities & https://www.who.int/disabilities/technology/gate/en/