AAATE in New York: discussing how assistive technologies enable independent living and inclusion

Interview with AAATE president Luc de Witte

The 11th Conference of State Parties (COSP) to the UNCRPD took place in June 2018 in New York, bringing together the delegations from the 177 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Like every year a great number of representatives of organisations of persons with disabilities, industry, international organisations and many other stakeholders joined the policy makers from all around the globe to discuss how to better promote accessibility and ensure that persons with disabilities fully enjoy their rights.

AAATE was happy to be one of these organisations and joined a high-level panel organised by the European Commission as one of the over 60 side-events to the conference, with the aim to discuss how assistive technologies enable independent living and inclusion.

Luc de Witte, president of AAATE, participated in this panel alongside representatives of the European Commission, WHO, the European Parliament, EASPD, the European Disability Forum, CEAPAT and the Swedish Agency for Participation. In this interview he shared his impressions from the 11th Conference of State Parties to the UNCRPD and the role AAATE has to play in this context.

What was the motivation for AAATE to participate in the 11th session of the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)?

Luc: This meeting of the State Parties to the UNCRPD is a wonderful platform to address people who have the potential to make changes in how we treat people with disabilities in all countries of the world. Of course, AAATE’s primary focus is Europe, but we should not limit our mission to Europe alone. Europe does not exist in isolation.

In the delivery of assistive technology (AT) Europe is the best developed part of the world. This goes hand in hand with the responsibility to share our expertise. Beyond that, we can learn a lot thinking about the problems in the developing countries and maybe find novel but simple solutions to the many challenges that we face in our own countries in Europe in this area.

For example, the Netherlands have a very fragmented, complicated system of AT provision. India on the other hand has no system at all but offers the possibility to think about it from scratch. In most European countries systems around the provision and delivery of assistive technology have grown historically and the systems were expanded and added on, until they took the form they have today. But how would we want to organise such a system if we had the chance to start from zero.

So, I believe, Europe has a role to play as we have done relatively well in this area, and on the other hand we can learn a lot from these other contexts.

Was it your first time at the COSP and if yes, what was your overall impression?

Luc: It was my first time at the Conference of State Parties to the UNCRPD and it was very impressive to see so many dedicated people spending about a week to discuss these subjects that usually don’t get much attention. To see and sense this energy was great. So many people with the same drive.

But it also showed how extremely difficult the processes of change are, when we need to overcome the barriers of different languages, different frames of reference, legislative backgrounds, cultures, histories….. It is extremely complex to reach consensus about the direction, about what “leave no one behind” or “excellence in AT delivery” really means. And consensus would only be the first step, then would have to come the whole implantation process, which is even more complex.

Interestingly, I have just now a PhD student who looks into how the UNCRPD principles are implemented in four different Asian countries, how they translate into national legislation, how they are implemented on operational level. A very interesting work.

What was the primary objective of the side-event organised by the European Commission and EASPD? What was the main message?

Luc: To give more attention to the specifics of assistive technology in the framework of implementing the UNCRPD. The main message was the huge gap between what we can do and what is accessible for people who need it, and that every step we take towards more innovation increases that gap. And this gap does not only exist between rich and poor countries. Even in Europe, we have a gap in access to AT within cities, where the richer part of town might be able to get much more support than the poorer part.

What is your key take away from this week in New York?

Luc: “Keep going, don’t give up.” There was a strong shared feeling among the 500 participants that things have to improve, that the human rights approach is really important for people with disabilities and that we do have the knowledge on how to achieve our goal of leaving no one behind. But we have to develop new models, think at another level, and garner the political will to transform our current socio-economic models.

Alternative models do exist. For example, I am working with three companies in India who work on a not-for-profit business model to improve access to health care services. They developed a diagnostic toolkit, which can be used by non-medical people who get a quick instruction. The toolkit is mobile, people get screened and a cloud-based patient record is established.

The business model is simple. India has a privately funded health care system. So we would go with this toolkit into the rural communities, everyone who gets screened pays a very small fee and gets an examination report. If a problem is found, they go to the hospital, who pays for the “referral”, plus the government could give financial support for the screening out of public health interest. Additionally, this would help create jobs as people from the communities are recruited to carry out the screening.

Is there anything you missed at this Conference of State Parties in New York?

Luc: There was only little possibility to develop ideas. It would be great to really work together with the participants and think through new models that we can develop to get better in providing assistive technology to everyone who needs it.

If you had a chance to attend the COSP again next year, what would be your topic and the main message?

Luc: Well, this year we only stated the problem. Next year, I would bring some examples of what is possible.