Freedom of speech

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Anna Rourke argues that the country needs a new approach to giving disabled people a voice

Technology that can change the lives of those who struggle to communicate or control their environment because of physical andor communication disabilities is known as assisstive technology. Anyone who has ever taught a child with special educational needs will know the huge difference gadgets such as touch-screens, switches and text-to-speech synthesisers can make to their quality of life.

Assistive technology means that even people with severe physical disabilities can communicate, participate and learn with others in a classroom. Yet, despite its importance, it can be a lottery when it comes to assistive technology provision. For example, a child may get excellent provision in their primary years but find that there is little or no co-ordinated support when they move up to secondary school. What we need is consistent and coherent provision - for all.

The first thing we need to do is make people aware of the assistive technologies and services available. If people are to benefit from assistive technology they need to know how to get a needs assessment (to identify the appropriate technology and support) and then how to get funding for the equipment, training and ongoing support.

Under existing schemes, it's possible to get provision at various stages throughout the education system, but all too often it requires parents or carers to have the knowledge, persistence and sometimes luck to know what help is available. This is clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

People with disabilities already face many hurdles; we need to devise systems that make it easy for them to get the right technology at the right time.

Let me give you an example of how the current system works in practice.

John has cerebral palsy. But before he starts school, he receives no advice, no training and no assistive technology equipment. Fortunately for John, his parents buy him various switches and switch-operated toys. These devices teach John that he can control his environment and make decisions - vital steps in early learning. As a result, he becomes a competent switch user.

While John is at school, he is assessed as someone who needs assistive technology, but no-one seems to know how he can get it. Fortunately for John, he's given a communication aid through the Communication Aids Project (Cap), a programme that provides funding for pupils in compulsory education who need assistive technology to help them communicate. With advice, assessments and training also provided, John becomes a highly competent user of the technology.

But when John does his A-levels at an FE college, he discovers that this type of support is no longer available. Fortunately, the college is able to pay for John's equipment by claiming depreciation costs from the Learning and Skills Council. As a result, John gets to use a computer with a special keyboard, but he gets no training and the equipment is taken away when he completes the course. But when John moves on to higher education, he finds there's suddenly a wealth of advice and funding available.

There is a fundamental problem in the existing funding structures, which means that the amount of help available for people with disabilities depends on where they are in the educational system. It's a feast-or-famine approach that puts those who need assistive technology throughout their lives at a disadvantage.

Schools are now better equipped to meet the needs of children with disabilities thanks to Cap, but more is needed. Cap has a budget of pound;5m per year, but this only lasts until 2006. Meanwhile, in higher education, around pound;45m is available each year through the Disabled Students Allowance. Why such a disparity? We need to help people develop and learn at an earlier stage so they have more chance of reaching higher education.

We also need a joined-up approach. With different government departments having different responsibilities and holding different budgets, it is inevitable that there is disagreement over who is responsible for funding grey areas that fall between education and health. We need centralised funding, with a cradle-to-grave approach, to ensure that more people can benefit from assistive technology throughout their lives. The subsequent savings in benefit and care costs would make this approach highly cost-effective. And the improvements, in terms of quality of life and educational opportunities for people with disabilities, are simply immeasurable.

Anna Rourke is manager of the ACE Centre - North, a charitable company that supports communication and learning through the use of assistive technology, for children and adults with physical and communication difficulties. She was talking to George Cole

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