Written by Philip Boucher,
Assistive technologies (ATs) are designed to improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. Some are relatively low-tech and very familiar, such as reading glasses, crutches and hearing aids. Others are more advanced, using cutting-edge science and technology, with future ATs under development that could have a huge impact on all our lives.
This week, STOA published the results of its study on ATs for people with disabilities. The study was requested by Ádám Kósa (EPP, Hungary) and carried out by the European Technology Assessment Group (ETAG), under the management of STOA.
The key results of the study are presented in a video, and are further summarised and developed in an In-Depth Analysis, published by STOA, which highlights that many current and future ATs could have a substantial positive impact on the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, education and employment. However, just because current ATs already bring many opportunities, that does not mean that social or regulatory action is not needed, nor does it mean that by waiting for future ATs we will inherit a more inclusive society. Indeed, if they are not developed and introduced carefully, ATs can pose risks for human rights, privacy, dignity, access to employment, freedom and social inclusion.
The first phase of the study focused upon the context of ATs, in particular the regulatory, health and demographic aspects. Three disabilities were considered: blindness and visual impairment, deafness and hearing impairment, and autism spectrum disorder. The three disabilities exhibit several similarities and differences that are important for current and future ATs. The analysis of the regulatory environment focused on Germany, Hungary, Portugal and Sweden, highlighting divergence in their approaches to supporting the use of ATs. These reviews are presented in Part I of the study. A review of current, emerging and future ATs is presented in Part II of the study.
The project then entered its primary research stage, which included surveys, expert interviews and a stakeholder workshop. People from each disability group, including users and non-users of ATs, participated in the survey, which focused upon their perspectives and needs with regard to technology and regulation. This was supplemented by expert interviews, selected so as to gain a deeper understanding of the potential and challenges of current and future ATs. The workshop brought together stakeholders from policy-making, NGOs, academia and industry to consider a wide range of potential impacts of ATs on society. These activities are presented in Part III of the study.
Through this combination of primary and secondary research, several social, technical, ethical, demographic, regulatory, economic and environmental trends were identified. These were used to compile four explorative scenarios about the future of ATs, which are published as an appendix to Part III of the study.
The final stage of the study was to develop legal and social-ethical reflections on the role of the European Parliament’s current and future initiatives. These were produced in-house by STOA, and led to a range of potential policy options regarding accessibility as a human right, privacy by design, informed consent, user-centred technology design, ethics oversight structures, AT classification systems, safety, the autonomy of choice to use ATs, and the availability of human care. The full range of reflections and policy options are presented in Part IV of the study.
The In-Depth Analysis concludes with several key messages. First, a proactive approach should be taken to ensure that current and future ATs respond to the needs and challenges of society. Second, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to promoting ATs may be inappropriate, as individuals have different needs, desires and preferences, and live in different social, economic and infrastructural contexts. Third, technology alone is not enough and should be combined with social and regulatory action. Fourth, actions should not exclusively focus on individuals with disabilities. Adequate responses to discrimination and stigma will require broad attitudinal and organisational change that permeates society. Some professions, particularly those at the front line of public services, need to understand how to communicate using ATs effectively, so as to ensure that they can deliver their services to all citizens. The designers and developers of all technologies – whether assistive or mainstream – would also benefit from a better understanding of the challenges of inclusion. Practical steps include co-creation and the enhanced involvement of people with disabilities from the earliest stages of technology development, and support for the emergence of a range of AT professionals who could support people with disabilities, technology developers, and other citizens to maximise the benefits of ATs. Fifth, and finally, it calls for more effective use of current technologies and regulations, combined with social action against discrimination and stigma, which could have a profound positive effect on all of our lives.