Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

New Innovations for People with Disabilities (Digital Assistive Technology): Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)

I am thankful I have been given the opportunity to address my Oireachtas colleagues with regard to digital and assistive technologies. I know some Senators present are dependent on glasses, as I am. I am sure everyone is aware of friends, family or colleagues who use hearing aids, screen readers or other items and technologies that help them in their day-to-day lives.That is exactly what digital and assistive technologies are about: making life that bit easier and more accessible for people with different kinds of impairments. The use of technologies has been characterised as a facilitator for the integration of services and the provision of facilities to serve people with disabilities. In other words, their use can allow people with an impairment to play a greater and more fulfilling role in society. According to the WHO, more than 1 billion people worldwide require one or more assistive products. As people turn 50 and get older, they will need an assistive product every year along the way. The bulk of these are disabled or elderly individuals.

People of all ages, including those with disabilities, have a variety of functional impairments as they age, and as a result, they require more support. By 2050, it is anticipated that more than 2 billion individuals will use assistive devices due to the ageing of the global population and the rising prevalence of non-communicable diseases.

With the help of assistive products, people with disabilities can engage in school, the job market and civic life, helping them to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives of their own choosing. Additionally, the use of formal health and support services, long-term care and caregiver labour can all be focused on more critical cases with the aid of assistive products.

Since becoming Minister of State, I have been dedicated to increasing developments, innovation and utilisation of digital and assistive technologies. Globally, I have engaged with the WHO and made sure that Ireland works with the international community, and, critically, with the disabled persons' organisations to ensure people with disabilities are the drivers of the innovative changes they want to see.

As a follow-up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, the WHO launched a programme to promote global co-operation on assistive technology entitled GATE. The goal of the GATE programme is to increase accessibility to high-quality, reasonably-priced assistive goods for those with a range of disabilities, illnesses, and age-related ailments. Ireland has been a key stakeholder in this.

The World Health Assembly Resolution 74.8 2021 urges member states to realise the highest attainable standards of health for persons with disabilities, a key part of which is around the development and provision of assistive technologies. This move was co-led by Ireland, and it is Ireland that is leading out on implementing a rights-based approach to building leadership and governance in health services.

I was recently at the WHO's European regional assembly and spoke about how important this is. On a national level, the Government is committed to offering people with disability the services and supports they need to plan their lives, live independently, and customise the supports needed to fit their requirements. Numerous services are available to shield people and families from paying exorbitant prices for their medical and surgical requirements.

Before I get into this, I want to bring it back to why there is such a focus on assistive technologies. As I explained to the Senator before coming in, when Covid-19 landed in this country and people had to go back into their houses, they were very isolated. To be fair to family members and providers, they saw innovative ways of continuing with communication. Hence the use of a tablet and finding ways to better connect people.

I was in west Cork and I went to the Irish Wheelchair Association. I thought I was going to meet a lady but in fact, the lady was waiting to meet me on Zoom. She told me about how she used to come in, using the Irish Wheelchair Association, to attend the service once a week. What Covid-19 showed her was by learning how to use assistive technology, she could go on Zoom, learn to play bridge, which she now does three times a week, and had more access to more friends. She was not judged on her disability but on her ability to play bridge. She had found many more friends. This got me thinking when I went out to the Central Remedial Clinic, CRC, and saw the wonderful work it was doing. I went into a class where people had to socially distance. While there might have been four people in the room, there was another 12 on Zoom. Very large screens were used to enable people to participate, use their connectivity and let the conversation continue. This is extremely important.

I hear about aids and appliances and we talk about the old model of aids and appliances. "Aids and appliances" is a term that is dated and does not keep up with technology. We need to be innovative and creative and support the families who understand best and help us shape the role aids, appliances and technology can play. I have looked to get more involved at an international level to see how Ireland can become part of things and to lever us onto a larger market of access to aids and appliances that will enable our citizens to fulfil what it states in the UNCRPD.

I am going to move on to some of the projects I have funded in the past year under the Cooperative Real Engagement for Assistive Technology Enhancement, CREATE, programme. This initiative seeks to ensure service users and providers work together to identify what will make a real difference to individual users of digital and assistive technology. What I am about to describe are projects funded by once-off funding of €2 million that I got last year in the budget. To be fair to the various groups that came forward, that €2 million has been very well spent.

The inclusion of the person is what makes this important. Funding for this was assessed on the extent to which each proposal was person-centred, as well as how it demonstrated a willingness to work collaboratively across different service providers and to engage with digital and assistive technologies through a clear process of co-design.

Acquired Brain Injury Ireland will use person-centred digital and assistive technologies to support brain injury survivors, while also establishing a new programme to systematically upskill its staff in a range and functionality of digital and assistive technologies products. The Brothers of Charity service west are establishing a pilot digital and assistive technologies team to develop a multidisciplinary service focusing on communication and access needs and linking with local advocacy groups for people with disabilities.

The CRC will establish Ireland's first sit-to-stand wheelchair service, allowing wheelchair users to stand without the need of assistance. For people with spinal cord injury and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, this may have a range of physical and psychological benefits. The nine children's disability network teams in community health west will establish a community DAT bank with access based on needs and incorporating digital and assistive technologies into family service planning and integrating with the Department of Education's digital strategy for schools. That is where we need connectivity. We need to connect children to their environment, be it in the home or in education. It is not just children but it is adults as well. We need to ensure we work across Departments and across areas of involvement.

Adult disability services in Longford and Westmeath will work with Longford County Council to identify digital and assistive technologies to support people with disabilities living independently in the community and facilitating those on a housing waiting list to take up a house when it becomes available and to ensure that house has the required assistive technology so they can live as independently as possible.

The Rehab Group will develop a digital and assistive technologies ecosystem with a first-stop-shop for information, advice and guidance on how digital and assistive technologies can enhance person-centred planning, independence and participation in all aspects of life. Their new digital and assistive technologies training module will be co­produced with people with disabilities. St. Michael's House will use digital and assistive technologies to enhance the experience of using respite services, incorporating the Sláintecare-funded health passport for people with intellectual disabilities.

Stewarts Care will use digital and assistive technologies to promote the implementation of the meaningful day approach to service provision, by providing a broader range of activities, including greater social interaction between service users and between them and the communities in which they live. Sunbeam House Services will develop a digital and assistive technologies loan library which, among other things, will support the advocacy group viewpoint, to develop a mentorship programme of expert digital and assistive technologies users. The National Council for the Blind, NCBI, will provide timely access to digital and assistive technologies nationwide, addressing delays and shortfalls in their provision and offering consistency of support. I have run out of time.


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