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The gap between tech and the disabled community

In the 21st century, the role of technology has gained epitome and it is believed that there is nothing that cannot be achieved by technological advancement. Today, the void of companionship is also filled with a humanoid. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are at par. The technology not only promises a comfortable life to all but is also assisted in managing the disability. 

Assistive technology (AT) can be defined as any equipment, software program, or product system that helps to enhance, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities. AT can be helpful in assistance to people of all ages and with all types of impairment (visual, locomotor, hearing, speech or cognition) or any sort of limitations in activities, and for a short or long period of time. 

AT includes communication boards made of cardboard that are considered as low-tech AT, special- purpose computers that fall in the high-tech category. There are AT that can be hardware like mounting systems, positioning devices, prosthetics; also it can be computer hardware like pointing devices, special switches etc. AT can be computer software like communication programmes and screen readers. AT also include the wheelchair, braces, walkers, educational software, power lifts, eye- gaze, pencil holders, head trackers and much more.

Lack of Accessibility of the Assistive Technology

There are millions of articles on the web that deliver the array of assistive technology for persons with disabilities but what discourse we lack here is about the gap that lies between the two. The affordability, availability of gadgets — is it possible for every person with disabilities to be equipped with such devices? The assistive device for the person with disabilities comes under the various category for example School System pays for general special education learning materials as well as technology specified in an Individualized Education Program; Rehabilitation and job training programs whether it is funded by the government or private agencies may pay for the assistive technology; Private health insurance pays for certain assistive technology if a doctor prescribes which is necessary for the medical or rehabilitation; the government may also pay for certain assistive devices as social security, veteran benefits or if a doctor prescribes it as a necessary medical device.

“There are not too many options when it comes to applications that aid people with disabilities. What is available is neither accessible or affordable,” says Chumki Datta, who is a successful entrepreneur and a paraplegic. What is the use of technology if it isn’t helping the one in need? Most of the Assistive technology is just for ‘tokenism.’ Assistive technology is an essential element in the rehabilitation of disabled individuals, but many people have no access to affordable AT solutions.

Different countries have different sets of challenges in term of the lack of accessibility of assistive technology. How can we assure that as many people as possible have access to assistive products and services that optimally support them to participate in society?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), today, only 1 in 10 people in need have access to assistive technology due to high costs and a lack of awareness, availability, trained personnel, policy, and financing. Globally, more than 1 billion people need 1 or more assistive products.

Many people who are in need of assistive technology lack access to it. 

According to WHO report examples of the unmet global need for assistive technology include:

  • 200 million people with low vision who do not have access to assistive products for low-vision.
  • 75 million people who need a wheelchair and only 5% to 15% of those in need who have access to one.
  • 466 million people globally experience hearing loss. Hearing aid production currently meets less than 10% of the global need.
  • Huge workforce shortages in assistive technology: over 75% of low-income countries have no prosthetic and orthotics training programmes. Countries with the highest prevalence of disability-related health conditions tend to be those with the lowest supply of health workers skilled in the provision of assistive technology (as low as 2 professionals per 10 000 population) 

The major reason for the lack of accessibility of assistive products in low-income countries is affordability, the report says.

The challenges to equip the disabled community with assistive technology are the lack of a national assistive technology policy or programme; The assistive products industry is limited and specialized, primarily attending high-income markets. Furthermore, there is a lack of state funding, nationwide service delivery systems, user-centred research and development, procurement systems, quality and safety standards, and context-appropriate product design; There is also a shortage of trained health personnel who are vital for the proper prescription, fitting, user training, and follow-up of assistive products to discuss few. 

Furthermore, the AT market is not an open market wherein the end-users usually have very little choice. The decisions are often taken by intermediary bodies like insurance companies or municipalities, or by donor-driven organizations and projects, but very rarely the user directly. This leads to the formation of a market with needs, required products but users without direct purchasing power. 

Assistive technology within Universal Health Coverage

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development puts good health and well-being at the core of a new development vision. It stresses universal health coverage (UHC) to ensure sustainable development for all so that health services are available to everyone around the globe without any challenges. 

UHC can move ahead with inclusivity only when the needs and requirements of the disabled community are addressed, and the access to good quality high-tech assistive products are available and accessible for them. 

Alongside the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by 177 countries and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it is crucial to address the unmet need for assistive products. 

Assistive technology should be made accessible, competent, efficient and flexible to the needs of the disabled community, only then we will be able to fulfil the UN motto of ‘Leaving no one behind’ in a true sense. 

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