US and UK assistive technology groups discuss collaboration

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Board members of the US-based Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) met with colleagues from the Council of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and the Advisory Board of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPG AT) at a meeting held earlier this month (8 May) in the Palace of Westminster.

ATIA represents manufacturers, sellers and providers of assistive technology (AT) globally. Its current Board of seven includes members from the US, Canada and the UK. US and Canadian members travelled to London with ATIA’s CEO David Dikter as part of its annual cycle of three Board meetings, one of which is held in Europe.

(L-R) Noel Duffy, Managing Director, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, and Robert McLaren, Manager of the APPG AT.

The joint meeting, held on the final day of their visit, was hosted by the APPG AT with the aim of sharing ideas and discussing international cooperation. It was chaired by Noel Duffy, Managing Director, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, a sponsor of the APPG. Duffy is also one of two British  members of the ATIA Board. Also in attendance was Barry Sheerman MP, chairman and co-founder of Policy Connect, which provides secretarial support to the APPG. Sheerman was formerly Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families and the Education and Skills Committee.

The 35 representatives heard short introductory reports from Tara Rudnicki, ATIA Board President, and John Lamb, Executive Director of BATA, on the current state of AT provision in the US and UK. Some common themes emerged, in particular the challenge of meeting the growing need for AT in the context of economic austerity and fragmented funding sources.

Rudnicki and Lamb were followed by Jack Churchill, co-founder and CEO of Scanning Pens Ltd, who described his experience of expanding into the US market. He described ATIA’s annual conference and exhibition as ‘a brilliant launch-pad with lots of top-level delegates from schools and school districts from across the country’.

Jack Churchill, co-founder and CEO of Scanning Pens Ltd.

He added:

I’m very proud of the fact that so many innovative British companies exhibit as this conference. We are probably after the US the main group of exhibitors at the ATIA exhibition so I think we should all be really proud of that fact.

Churchill also highlighted the support available to UK companies thinking of expanding overseas from the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the recent establishment of a special interest group within BATA for those considering the export market. However, he warned that the US educational marketplace is more fragmented than many think and basic requirements such as banking arrangements and recruitment can prove difficult when operating in a market 3,000 miles away.

While applauding the support he had received from ATIA over the last few years he said he would welcome more. Among his suggestions were video tutorials about selling into US schools and an email group through which buyers and sellers could maintain regular contact and discuss issues of mutual interest.

David Dikter responded by explaining the diverse nature of the manufacturers, distributors and services covered by AT in the US. Even within our industry, he said, we are four, five or six unique and individual industries, supporting people with different disabilities, in different ways, from different funding streams. Education is a mainstay of ATIA’s activity, best exemplified by its four-and-a-half-day annual conference with 375 educational sessions attended by 3,000 individuals and its exhibition showcasing 110 companies. It also offers a fee paying web-based training service, including live webinars and on-demand videos, that is used by 5,000-8,000 people annually.

This eco-system, he argued, is critical to AT’s success. As for the US marketplace, he said it is more than fragmented:

If you are targeting school funding, you can’t even generally talk about a state. You really have to often talk about local towns and communities who get their money drip, drip, drip — some from the federal government, some from the state government. But the decision-making on spending is actually at a local level.

Understanding this and working out how best to access specific areas of the US market is the key to success, he added, and is a process best started with a visit to  ATIA’s annual event.

The final introduction was by Robert McLaren, Manager of the APPG AT. The APPG is a cross-party group of MPs and Peers interested in the opportunities presented by AT. Launched in March 2017 it is chaired by Seema Maholtra MP (Labour) and Lord Chris Holmes (Conservative). McLaren explained how the APPG develops relationships with MPs, Peers and civil servants to enhance their understanding of AT and advise how it might help implement policy decisions. The APPG has organised a series of events highlighting issues such as skills acquisition and employment, early years and play, AAC and literacy, and inclusive learning spaces in higher education. It has also contributed to a range of government consultations relevant to the AT sector.

The subsequent discussion identified a number of areas of mutual interest. These included:

  • The training needs of practitioners in schools, colleges and universities to equip them with knowledge and expertise to identify where and what AT might assist their students.
  • The vicious cycle created when schools purchase AT that, for whatever reasons, doesn’t meet their expectations. This leads them to disengage with AT and subsequently AT companies step back from engagement with them. This has become acute in English schools with the Government’s increased emphasis on local decision-making. Among the solutions proposed was lobbying government for a return to some form of local authority based advisory service. It was also pointed out that BATA has established a special interest group for educationalists that is open to all educationalists, not just BATA members. Lobbying on this issue would be strengthened, it was suggested, by better quality data about the number of students who would benefit from AT and the cost of providing it.
  • The US experience suggests that one route to improving knowledge and expertise may be through certification. Working in partnership with certifying bodies ATIA is able to offer four or five AT-related continuing professional development (CPD) units, a model that might work in the UK. ‘What has built our success as an organisation is the vast number of partner organisations that we work with,’ Dikter explained. ‘As an industry association we are focused on trying to raise awareness of the industry but we do that through 30-50 NGOs, non-profits, that are in every segment and sector.’ A number of ways of following this up in the UK were suggested. These included raising the profile of AT within the current government consultation on teachers’ CPD framework, through initial teacher training, and raising the awareness of school leaders, including headteachers.
  • An alternative route into the US market discussed was mergers and acquisitions. One UK-based company described how it linked up with a Canadian company that complements the note-taking software it supplies. It funded its expansion into the US and plans to merge with it this year using its better established brand name for its US operation.
  • Attendees welcomed the recent investment by major IT companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google in making their products more accessible and usable for people with special needs and/or disabilities, but questioned whether the ‘general messaging’ around these improvements might give a false impression that they now provided a comprehensive solution. The consensus was that they were helping raise the general level of awareness about AT but the onus was on specialist companies to show how much more their products offered, especially in respect of low incidence disabilities.

(L-R) Rick Bell, Texthelp and BATA Vice Chair; Jeremy Brassington, Managing Director, Conversor Ltd; and John Lamb, Ability Magazine and Executive Director, BATA.

Discussion continued afterwards at a champagne reception hosted by ATIA and sponsored by Inclusive Technology, HelpKizLearn and Special World, held at London’s Oriental Club.

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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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