“We call on all countries to fund and prioritize access to assistive technology.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director-General of the WHO)

According to the first Global Report on Assistive Technology released this May by WHO and UNICEF, close to one billion people with disabilities do not have access to at least one item of assistive technology they require. It is clear that we need a radical change NOW: goal-oriented support from state entities and investments into the tech industry are mandatory to make assistive technology available and affordable to everybody who needs it.

Assistive technology must also be designed to work with the environment we want to interact with, and our environment needs to connect directly to the assistive technology we use. A well-funded tech industry can provide access to the assistive technology each individual needs.The issue of proper funding does not only restrict people who rely on the low-threshold access to assistive technology. The lack of funding also limits the resources available to the tech industry for the development of more innovative and integrative applications. To make change happen, more funding is necessary: the affordability of assistive technology enables people. 

Re-thinking mobility and consequently destroying structures of ableism in society is well overdue. Mobility restrictions are a social construct. Disability lies not in the person, but in their environment. We must create environments that are supportive and inclusive for everybody - and the same goes for technology: it must be designed and built to support people in whatever they are up to.

“Assistive technology is a life changer – it opens the door to education for children with impairments, employment and social interaction for adults living with disabilities, and an independent life of dignity for older persons.” 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director-General of the WHO)

One great example of meaningful and sustainable empowerment of people with significant mobility impairments is the improvement we see in the access to playing sports. The WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behavior state that people living with disabilities can derive meaningful health benefits from 150 minutes of physical activity per week already. Even though an article The Lancet published still showed that the available assistive technology did not provide all the necessary support for people with mobility impairments to access physical activity, there are also improvements.

We see many sports organizations around the world offering power wheelchair events, for example the https://www.powersoccerusa.org/ and https://www.paralympic.org/. Possibilities for power wheelchair users supported by hands-free assistive technology to participate in these events would significantly increase their appeal to the community. More adaptable assistive technology can help create freedom of movement for people with mobility impairments and enable their participation in all kinds of physical activities: playing sports, dancing, yoga - or just a spontaneous stroll through the nearby park.

Alongside the continuous advancement of assistive technology, the environment in which it is meant to be put to use for people is another important issue.They mutually condition each other. Infrastructure such as public transportation, community spaces and the design of buildings in general must be fully aligned to support the deployment of assistive technology.

We’re thinking as far as smart home systems being one of the standards to implement everywhere: accessing means of nutrition, sanitation and transportation, opening and closing doors or windows, calling an elevator, operating all kinds of technical devices, just to give some very basic examples. Wouldn’t it be great if all it took were small gestures, voice commands - or even thoughts? Today, even a lot of digital spaces are still not inclusive. As a result, people with impaired mobility are often prevented from engaging with and contributing to society, which is a huge loss for all of us.

Written by Nina Rattenbury & Dana Meichsner