WHO: One billion more people will need assistive technology by 2050

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. He also recently spoke to the House of Lords Adult Social Care Committee about technology and independent living.

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. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says one billion more people will need assistive technology by 2050.  Is the world ready? 

‘Dear Assistive Product, be very welcome in our home and in our lives! May you enhance Sofia’s skills and minimize her hardships. You have arrived with beauty and charm, and I am grateful for that...’

These are the words of the mother of Sofia from Brazil.  At the age of 3, Sofia – who has cerebral palsy – mastered her motorised mobility device which enables her to move around independently and has unlocked her social life by helping her engage with her peers.  

Sofia’s story is one of many highlighted in last month’s global report on assistive technology. Published by the World Health Organisation, the report is the first-ever worldwide portrait of the demand for assistive technology and its availability.  

Global trends

Over 2.5 billion people around the world need one or more assistive technologies to go about their everyday lives. The report finds that this figure is likely to jump to 3.5 by 2050. The biggest causes of the increase are expanding life expectancies and the growth of non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes.  Google home mini next to a plant

Despite these global trends, the main factor that determines whether your assistive technology needs are met is where you live.  Whereas the share of the population in rich countries whose assistive technology needs are satisfied can be as high as 90%, in poorer nations this percentage plunges to only 3%.  As a consequence, almost 1 billion people don’t have access to assistive technologies that could enhance their lives.

The World Health Organisation believes that assistive technology should be available to everyone in the same way that health care is provided on a universal basis in most developed countries. The report provides some examples of where this idea is being put into action. Norway - where the government has a long history of providing assistive technology - treats access to assistive technology as a human right. The government oversees a network of 17 regional assistive technology centres and is responsible for funding, procurement and capacity building.

Barriers to assistive technology vary to some extent from one country to the next. But common stumbling blocks include gaps in service provision and workforce training created by professional silos, fragmented funding and programmes and exacerbated by a lack of awareness among the general public, low-quality products and supply chain challenges.  

Breaking down barriers for the next billion

But the report also points out how things are changing for the better. Product designers are using the principles of universal design - which help them think through how to make an object or environment accessible to everyone - into consumer technology more routinely than in the past. For example, an inclusive line of boots features large zips, adjustable laces and pull tabs on the back to make it easier to put them on. It also highlights a smartwatch that provides tactile cues so people with visual impairments can enjoy its features.

Even everyday tools such as silverware and farming equipment are getting a makeover making them more comfortable to hold and less likely to cause pain or injury by adjusting the width of their handles.

Governments can also help to shape the local and global assistive technology markets. China's Assistive Devices and Technology Centre for Persons with Disabilities aims to increase the availability of high-quality and affordable assistive products domestically and internationally by developing and spreading standards for four types of devices - white canes, optical magnifiers, rollators and manual wheelchairs.

As the number of people who use assistive technology surges, demand for high-quality and low-cost products and services will swell. Governments and innovators should start to prepare now.

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Further resources 

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