2022 Assistive Technology review: Barriers, highlights and beyond

Assistive technology news, policy and events. Clive, smiling at the camera

DispATches is written by Clive Gilbert, freelance research consultant and specialist writer in public policy, social affairs and technology.

Born with cerebral palsy, Clive is an extensive user of assistive technology and has first-hand experience of the transformative potential that technology can bring to the lives of disabled people. 


An astronaut in space. 2022 ended on a high note for assistive technology. On 23 November, the European Space Agency named former British Paralympian John McFall as the first-ever disabled astronaut. McFall has been selected to take part in a study to assess how disability might affect space travel and what adaptations would need to be put in place to overcome any barriers.

If all goes well, he will one day take off on a future space mission with the first generation of extraterrestrial assistive technology in tow.

Capturing the limelight

Back on earth, the public profile of assistive technology has been boosted on several fronts. Former rugby player Rob Burrow recently became the first nonverbal person to read the CBeebies Book at Bedtime, introducing millions of children and parents to his eye-gaze-controlled communication aid. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2020, Burrows read a children's story called Tilda Tries Again by Tom Percival, which tells the tale of a young girl who finds ways to cope after her life is turned "tipsy turvy."

Burrows' high-profile TV appearance attracted lots of extra media attention and brought the MND Association and its work leading the 'I Will Always Be Me' voice banking project (the subject of a dispATches deep dive) into the spotlight.

The trend for the cause of assistive technology to be taken up by the mainstream tech sector has continued apace. The founder and CEO of Texthelp, Martin McKay, won the Entrepreneur of the Year award at this year’s prestigious industry awards ceremony, hosted by the international consultancy EY. McKay set up Texthelp in 1996 to develop technologies that help people with physical communication and learning impairments to read, write, and share information more easily. 

Elsewhere, Netflix appointed Heather Dowdy to its newly-created Director of Product Accessibility post. Dowdy will lead the streaming juggernaut’s platform's efforts to make its content easier for disabled viewers to consume. Top of her list of priorities is expanding the range of languages in which programme audio descriptions and subtitles are available.

Heather Dowdy joined us for an episode of Accessibility Insights! Access the recording and check out exclusive extra questions answered by Heather. 

Barriers to technology

However, 2022 also issued some reminders of how much there is still to do to make sure that everyone who may benefit from assistive technology can readily acquire and use it. The World Health Organisation's inaugural global report on assistive technology found that nearly one billion people are being denied access, particularly in low- and medium-income countries.

The barriers are similar all over the world, with affordability at the top of the list, followed by things like a lack of awareness and services, poor product quality, and supply chain obstacles. Even in the UK, a study of the use of digital voice assistants by speech and language therapists published earlier in the year (which I blogged about in August) revealed that 72% of professionals say that they don't have opportunities to use them, even though many think such technologies might help the people they support.Twitter app icon on a smartphone screen.

There have also been hints at the fragility of some of the progress that has been made. Since Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, the company has fired its accessibility experience team, which earlier in the year introduced text descriptions to make images shared on the platform accessible for people who use screen readers.

Both Amazon and Google have drastically cut the size of their development teams working on their voice-activated assistants. They have struggled to find a way to make money out of them as users are more reluctant than expected to issue purchases with their voice, preferring to use them for harder-to-monetise commands such as switching on lights or playing music.

Notes of optimism for 2023 

But these developments are likely to turn out to be minor setbacks. Technologies such as Alexa and Siri are firmly ensconced in the operating systems of our phones, smart homes, and desktop computers. They will probably remain so even if the business models that underpin them continue to evolve and mature.

Musk's mercurial instincts run against strong demographic and regulatory trends, which are converging on an increasingly implacable demand for technology firms to make their products more accessible and inclusive so that disabled and older people can use them. The announcement early in the new year of Sony's new accessible PlayStation gaming controller, nearly 5 years after the release of the Xbox equivalent, demonstrates the growing need for companies to compete for the custom and loyalty of this growing consumer group.

Far from following Twitter's example, 2023 may well be the year when the tech sector's demand for accessibility expertise intensifies as firms compete to recruit top talent to their organisations.

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Further resources 

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