Inclusive Technology, one of the UK’s leading assistive technology companies, has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the UK’s most prestigious business award. Mick Archer spoke to Executive Chairman, Martin Littler, to find out moreTwelve-year-old Natasha was born with a rare genetic condition that means she is restricted to a wheelchair, cannot speak and has little power in her upper limbs.
Last year we published her story in Special World. Telling Nat’s story wasn’t easy for her mother, Sam; understandably she was protective of her daughter’s identity (Nat isn’t her real name) and wary of how her story might be presented.
But Sam had a compelling story to tell and tell it she did. A story of a family whose love for their daughter involved a dogged search for ways to help improve her mobility, communication and learning. A search that led them to Inclusive Technology, a UK assistive technology company, and Sam to an email exchange with its Executive Chairman, Martin Littler. Sam, it transpired, was a big fan of Inclusive’s hardware, software and online services, but had a few questions to ask about pricing. At the end of the exchange Littler suggested she write an article detailing her search.
I thought of Nat and Sam when I heard Inclusive Technology had won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, and specifically for International Trade. It’s an accolade granted to very few companies, many of them household names, but none that I know of in the field of special educational needs (SEN). But UK assistive technology has a worldwide reputation for excellence second to none and the internet now means its reach is extending. Nat and Sam are testimony to that: they live in Australia.
Back at its Delph headquarters Inclusive staff are clearing a space in their trophy room for the commemorative crystal bowl that they will receive from the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater Manchester to symbolise their award. It will probably nestle between the Education Resource Award they won earlier this year and the Award for Innovation in Special Educational Needs Software won in 2015. While details of the award ceremony have yet to be finalised it seems certain to involve some of the children who have benefited from Inclusive’s products. The company has an excellent working relationship with some of its local special schools.
Meanwhile Littler and Managing Director Sukhjit Gill have the enviable task of attending a special reception for award winners hosted by Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in July. For Littler it’s a very long way from when he set up Inclusive with Trish Hornsey and Roger Bates in 1998. All three were teachers with an interest in special educational needs (SEN) and technology and to this day all three remain involved in the company.
From the outset Inclusive had global ambitions. Within three years of its launch it had established a subsidiary in New Jersey, but over time it relinquished this in favour of working through a wider dealership network in the US and Canada. This shift over a 10-year period coincided with the huge changes that took place both in educational and assistive technology and in the channels through which Inclusive could reach new customers. It has been Inclusive’s ability to adapt to these that has kept it at the forefront of its field.
Over time Inclusive has also honed its mission.
Inclusive develops accessible software aimed at children who perhaps can only make a single voluntary movement, and we provide the alternative keyboards, joysticks, rollerballs, switches and touch screens these learners may need. We are also expert in eye gaze technology, which is increasingly important in our field. Although the child is the end user of our technology, our customer is the teacher or therapist working with that child. Inclusive seeks out the latest and most effective special needs software and hardware from around the world to meet their needs. As well as stocking and supplying assistive technology, we are frequently involved in the design and specification, investing time, market knowledge and, occasionally, cash for tooling.
In 1998 there were 820,000 computers in UK state schools according to a recent British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) report. By 2005 this had risen to two million. By then laptops and interactive whiteboards were appearing alongside the ubiquitous desktop machines as UK teachers embraced the technological revolution. Significantly BESA attributes the pace of change to increased government investment but also to the many edtech companies set up by teachers. As for internet connectivity, BESA’s report noted that while almost all UK secondary schools were connected to the internet in 2005 and all primaries by 2008 teachers were facing a new obstacle: bandwidth.
In fact Internet bandwidth was considered less than half the optimal level when Inclusive took its next big step.
In 2007 we began putting small switch-accessible activities on a website we called HelpKidzLearn. Our aim was to test software routines before committing them to CD. This service grew in popularity and was reaching 500,000 unique users by 2010. This had a greater – and much more international – reach than our software published on CD.
Soon, however, the free HelpKidzLearn service was eating into Inclusive’s software sales – particularly in the US. And there was another problem. While the advent of the iPad, first launched in 2010, marked a major breakthrough for Inclusive’s end-users it undercut many of Inclusive’s established products and rendered others obsolete.
As well as making a significant proportion of what we supplied unnecessary, iPads did not accept the Flash technology in which all 80 of our specialist programs were written. Fortunately we had already embarked on establishing an online presence with HelpKidzLearn, which by then was being widely used in 150 countries. The commercial drawback was that it was free. In 2011 we decided to ask users to register.
The gamble paid off. Almost one in four of HelpKidzLearn’s users chose to register, 46 per cent of them in the US and Canada. These now form the bedrock of the company’s extensive contacts list. In 2012 Inclusive increased the resources adding 90 activities with fixed content and introduced a paywall for the newly launched HelpKidzLearn.com.
In 2013 it added ChooseIt! Maker 3, which allows teachers to create individual learning activities personalised to each child. Here it used a slightly different approach launching it as a free app that acts as a shop window for its subscription service. To date it has been downloaded over 130,000 times with a record 25,000 downloads in one day. These online services and the accompanying iPad apps began to have a considerable influence on Inclusive’s profitability and export performance and were a key factor in it winning its award.
Today while traditional access hardware still accounts for just over half of Inclusive’s sales, bolstered by iPad accessories such as protective cases, mountings and amplification, it is online resources and apps that are the rising stars of the company’s portfolio. Nat’s story graphically illustrates why. In their ‘small country town’ in Australia Nat’s parents ‘discovered’ HelpKidzLearn, trialled accessing it using wands, joysticks and switches, progressed to using it on an iPad with an it-Switch and Simply Works, and eventually added ChooseIt! Maker 3 ‘to enable Nat to do the same school work as her peers’.
It’s a roadmap followed by countless others. In 2014/15 Inclusive had customers in 59 overseas countries contributing 28 per cent of its total revenues. While Europe is still responsible for over half of its overseas sales this falls to under a quarter when it comes to its online services. Here it is the US and other English-speaking countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – that dominate. In Europe the company has 21 dealers in 14 countries who it is working with to get the HelpKidzLearn website into local languages. So far these include Catalan, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.
Meanwhile it maintains contact with its online customers and contacts through its online catalogues, websites, newsletters, webinars and videos. The latest extension to this is Special World, a free magazine-style website populated with news and features about the world of SEN. In the UK these are supplemented by free Information Days when the company meets 1,000 of its customers face-to-face at one-day events held in all nine English regions and Scotland and Wales.
As the figures demonstrate this level of ‘customer care’ has won Inclusive a loyal following. A staggering 91 per cent of its revenue over the last eight years has been from returning customers.
We want customers to buy the product that meets an individual’s needs. Therefore we offer a 100-day no-quibble, money-back returns policy, entirely at the customer’s discretion. This is unique in our industry and we shout it from the rooftops.
As a result he estimates the number of returns in 2014/15 at less than a half of one per cent.
Littler is sanguine about the future of assistive technology despite the obvious funding issues in many of its markets in recent years. He is also elated by Inclusive’s latest award, which he says recognises the huge contribution the UK has made to assistive technology over the last 40 years.
The award is also a huge pat on the back for our team. They all get a buzz from developing resources that can transform the lives of learners with special educational needs and disabilities. For 20 years now we have focused on the needs of learners facing the most profound challenges, perhaps only able to make a single voluntary movement or sound. Our team of developers, teachers and therapists have helped these learners access technology through switches, touch panels, touch monitors, tablets and now the latest eye gaze technology. With these programs being delivered online Inclusive’s resources are now supporting a world community of special educators in special schools and similar settings.
As for meeting Her Majesty The Queen in the year of her ninetieth birthday he reflects that pretty well the whole development of computers, which has transformed the lives of so many, has taken place during her 64-year reign. ‘Perhaps I can work that into the conversation when we meet in July’.