CHENNAI 26th October 2022: Assistive Technology (AT) enables people with disabilities to live a healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives, and to participate in education, the labour market and in civic life. Assistive technology reduces the need for formal health and support services, long-term care, and the work of caregivers. Without assistive technology, people are often excluded, isolated, and locked into poverty, thereby increasing the impact of disease and disability on a person, their family, and society.
The products range from hearing aids, wheelchairs, communication aids, spectacles, prostheses, pill organizers to memory aids. In fact, 1 in every 6 of us is differently abled in some way and we need some AT product, like a smartphone, an Alexa, or e-commerce platforms or as simple as a pair of glasses for our day-to-day chores.
For geriatric individuals with physical, sensory, communication or cognitive disabilities, AT devices facilitate independence in accomplishing activities (i.e., the ability to execute tasks or actions such as reading, writing, walking/moving, dressing, and eating). The core objective of AT is that by enabling a person to perform desired tasks, AT offer the potential to provide a sense of autonomy as well as connection to the community. By accommodating a person’s weaknesses and supporting his or her strengths, assistive technologies can reduce emotional and psychosocial as well as physical stress on individuals and their caregivers.
Across the globe, many people who need assistive technology do not have access to it. Lack of affordability in low-income countries is a major reason people in need do not possess assistive products. Data from WHO cites few examples of the unmet global need for assistive technology, which includes:
- 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 programs.
- 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).
How to address the gap? Is technology the lifeline for AT?
Chapal Khasnabis, Head (a.i) of the Access to Assistive Technology and Medical Devices Unit at the World Health Organization is determined to see a marriage take place between Digital Technology and Assistive Technology. He believes that the need is so much but the pace at which solutions are brought out is severely slow. Khasnabis is certain that the more digital technology integrates the faster will be the outcome of product innovations and developments. He is personally involved in overseeing projects that can incorporate ICT and digital technology to better AT products, make them more user-friendly, and more specifically make them an asset for people with disabilities.
According to Khasnabis, India has a lot to learn from countries like China, Japan, and Korea, where they give a lot of importance to the design and accessibility of spaces, things, and other comforts to all their citizens based on age and disabilities. But he is glad, EMPOWER-like events have seeded the thought about AT and that there is some headway in AT product innovations with the help of start-ups, tech conglomerates, and academic institutions like the IITs and IIMs.
For India to progress in the AT sector and to emerge as a leader, Khasnabis has 2 suggestions. He implies, “If India must succeed in AT, then just like the western countries, AT products must come under the insurance ambit. Once the cost of AT products gets reimbursed by insurance companies, the entire AT industry will undergo a paradigm shift. This will in turn bring world-class quality products to the market, boost the market value of those products, and their potential to export, and thus impact the country’s economic conditions in a big way. The more export happens, the better subsidy for local products can be achieved.”
Well, his other take is that technologies like AI and ML for AT products must be proactively developed in AT. According to him, new-age technologies will overcome challenges like resource constraints. Khasnabis says human resource challenges are going to be immense in India and the rest of the world. We are going to rely more on technology to do our jobs day by day.
Therefore, an increased adoption, integration, and implementation of technology into AT products will make the sector grow for benefits to reap. Khasnabis also suggests that Indian startup entrepreneurs must increasingly collaborate with foreign counterparts to acquire knowledge and co-create international standard products while establishing their presence in foreign markets.
Likewise, Keynote Speaker of EMPOWER, Professor Catherine Holloway, Co-Founder, Academic Director of Global Disability Innovation Hub and Professor at UCL’s Interaction Centre, says she travels to India to attend EMPOWER each edition to satisfy her desire in her to improve the quality of Assistive Technologies and the lives of the people who use them. At EMPOWER, Holloway fulfills the mandate laid down by GDI Hub, i.e., to accelerate the development of AT products that are viable in the market, deliver specific use cases to the people in India, evaluate them for clinical trials, conduct impact studies and establish joint research, cross-country opportunities. The startups that exhibited at the event impressed her and she says India is on the right path to make a significant presence and forefront in AT innovations.
Author: Anusha Ashwin, PCQuest
October 26th, 2022
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