Smart home technology must advance for disabled independent living

Assistive technology news, policy and events. 

Clive, smiling at the cameraDispATches 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. 

This month's dispATches newsletter is sponsored by Dolphin Computer Access. 

When I am not compiling and reflecting on the month's assistive technology developments, I try to play a small part in sparking them. 

Working within the assistive and accessible technology team at the cross-party think tank Policy Connect, I work with a group of talented colleagues to persuade the government, parliamentarians and other policy makers to dedicate more resources to realising the potential of technology to help disabled and older people thrive. 

Last month we published Smarter Homes for Independent Living: Putting People in Control of Their Lives. This is a piece of work I have been overseeing since shortly after I joined Policy Connect in 2019.

Changing the debate

The project was driven by two facts. The first was simply that we are living through a time when digital technology is enveloping our domestic lives as never before. Everything from our home entertainment to the way we watch our energy consumption and get the attention of the person in another room can be done through the same set of interlinked devices. How can we ensure disabled and older people can benefit from these products as much as everyone else? 

The second fact that drove the project was that most of the discussion around technology and care tends to be lopsided. The conversation focuses mostly on how technology can help keep people safe and well and gives little time to the equally important role it can play in supporting them to lead fulfilling lives.

Our roundtable discussions and surveys of disabled and older people and the social care and technology sectors highlighted an array of challenges.  Innovators often feel ill-equipped to design technologies for disabled people due to a lack of training and everyday experience of disability.  

Decision-makers across the health and social care system have low levels of digital confidence and limited knowledge of assistive technology.  Investment in new technology to support independent living tends to be targeted mainly at the earliest stages of innovation which means promising prototypes often never escape the workshop. 

A more aspirational approach

The report sets out a series of remedies. For example, we propose that the government should establish an Independent Living Technology Grant to help disabled and older people pay for low-cost technologies while also giving a much-needed boost to the independent living technology market. 

Another set of proposals would put technology and independent living at the centre of adult social care service delivery, for example, by requiring councils and the NHS to show how their services give people more choice and control. New education and training programmes would allow the health and social care and technology sectors to use technology to empower people as well as care for them. 

The report points out how government can make the UK a better place to create, buy and sell independent living technology through innovation policy to adjust regulations, public investment programmes and other policies to help cultivate a more vibrant business environment and market.

For many years, national and local governments have viewed independent living technology through the prism of the health and social care system and the need to alleviate the growing demand for services. Smarter Homes for Independent Living is a call for a more ambitious approach that encompasses the full range of needs and aspirations of disabled and older people.

Do you have a contribution for next month's dispATches? Email Clive if you have a comment or contribution for next month's newsletter.

Further resources 

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help disabled people and older people. If you can afford it, please donate to help us support older and disabled people through technology