Interview with Katerina Mavrou, President of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe

Can you give us a quick overview of the role and mission of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE)

Ιn brief I would say that the general mission of AAATE is to indorse assistive technologies as an important player for equal opportunities and quality of life of people with disabilities of all ages. By saying so, I would like to highlight the interdisciplinarity of the association and its role as a platform for collection of knowledge, expertise and experiences from a broad range of stakeholders, in order to ensure that the use of appropriate, affordable and accessible assistive technology is a human right.

Assistive Technology’s role is to uphold inclusion in everyday routine, in education, in the workplace. How can AAATE support that?

Inclusion should be considered as part of a general understanding of human diversity and the acknowledgment of persons’ dignity. This is intertwined with the concept of universal design and accessibility.  So, I see AAATE’s role as an agent in fighting for the right to access appropriate AT and to accessibility. AAATE can support this, not only through its own mission statements and position papers, but also through its activities and action plan.  The main message that needs to go out is that in order to uphold inclusion through the use of AT, we need to start from people. People entail the user, and the user means emphasis on technology personalization and adaptivity. In addition, people entail all interested stakeholders, and AAATE is people.

Now, as far as actions is concerned, the association can very well hold the role of a powerful network of individuals and institutions with the same vision: accomplishment of inclusion through assistive technology. Through its members and National Contact Persons, AAATE can reach multiple and different sectors and influence policies and practices in the development and implementation of AT, in different countries. What is important here, is the opportunity to produce context-specific approaches by employing AAATE’s network. In addition, AAATE already holds a portfolio of research projects, as well as a range of academics among its members, through which it supports collaborative research work on AT in everyday life, education and employment. In terms of policy AAATE can support inclusion, by participation in public dialogues, consultation processes, position statements as well as collective efforts with other umbrella organizations. By these efforts AAATE puts forward the imperative of equal opportunities and inclusion, and how the advancement of the field of assistive technology is relevant to everyone, in all areas of life. In addition, AAATE’s support to inclusion and the role of AT, is realized through specific activities such as the development of assistive technology service delivery framework; the development of AT and e-accessibility education and training frameworks; and the dissemination of expertise and best practices.

There are many global challenges that require action so that people with disabilities can share equal opportunities. Can you prioritize AAATE’s actions regarding the stakeholders addressed?

One of the main priorities of AAATE for the next years is the Association’s participation in Global initiatives and international collaborations. This already started some years ago with the involvement of AAATE members in WHO initiatives such as GATE. Today the AT community’s response to the Global challenges is more formally shaping into the Global Alliance of Assistive Technology Organization (GAATO,) to the establishment of which AAATE has been more or less a pioneer. I believe that this a revolutionary step forward for shaping a global community and realize that there are much more common values and common concerns among AT stakeholders worldwide that we are aware of, and that this collective approach can make the change.

Another priority of AAATE for the next two years which also looks into global challenges, is the association’s contribution to the development and probably the implementation of Assistive Technology Service Delivery Quality Framework.  What seems to be one of the main difficulties globally is the lack of coherent AT services. An issue that is not exclusive to lower income countries or countries with under-developed technology services, but a rather more global and also European concern that often leads to failure of appropriate access and implementation of AT. In terms of action towards this, AAATE has already participated in the publication of an initial AT services quality framework, and is currently building on that through international and European projects.

Fostering for the empowerment of particularly oppressed groups of people with disabilities that may be underrepresented and/or less privileged, such as women and people with immigrant background, is also among the priorities of AAATE with regards to global issues. In many countries around the world disability related and assistive technology resources do not reach some population groups due to many factors that can be financial, cultural, or due social or educational policies. AAATE aims to highlight gender and cultural barriers and the need to eliminate multiple forms of discrimination with respect not only to access and use of AT and accessibility, but also to the imperative of digital inclusion. Towards this end, the actions of AAATE would involve implementation of strategic alliances as well as participation in relevant projects that focus on particular target groups.

Finally, I would like to mention the priorities of AAATE in relation to education. The association’s main activities, i.e. the conference and the workshop, as well as the participation in networks and projects very often include educational activities and events related to education. Whilst the emphasis is usually placed on developing AT and digital competences for end-users, AAATE has acknowledge the need for training and education of other stakeholders. One example of AAATE action is the coordination of the Entelis network, as well as the participation in the ENTELIS+ project on ICT-AT and e-Accessibility education for a broad range of stakeholders.

Τhe Bologna Declaration endorsed by more than 150 organizations in August 2019 is a call for action to improve access to Assistive Technology. What’s the next step?

The Bologna Declaration started as an idea of taking a step forward the work that AAATE initiated some years ago in collaboration with other organizations such as the WHO on Global Challenges. We are happy to say that it developed into a simple and at the same time very substantial document that worked as a mutual agreement among persons and organizations around the world on the value of the human rights approach to assistive technology.  The aim is to use the Bologna Declaration as a reference point to influence policies. It is already cited in academic papers as well as in other publications from different organizations. It has recently been taken into consideration from networks of disability experts that prepare reports for the European Commission on thematic areas under focus, which for 2020-2021 will involve new technologies.

Another step forward is to convert the Bologna Declaration into an easy-to-read and accessible document that will be able to reach the main interested stakeholders: persons with disabilities. Such an approach will increase not only readability and endorsement of the declaration, but also the number of stakeholders and interested parties that will be able to use it for influencing EU as well as National policies and practices.

What would also be great as a next step, is the development of the suggested action points of the declaration into an action plan. An action plan not exclusively for AAATE but a proposed strategy for various countries where AT policy and practice are either emerging or reforming. As far as AAATE is concerned we may want to map our strategic planning, activities and action plan to the Bologna Declaration action points in order to self-reflect and evaluate our approaches and priorities.

Is policy making the starting point or should we focus on inclusive solutions coming from the industry and people’s associations in order to end up in policymaking instead?

Tricky question…. One part of my self and background would say yes… policy making is the starting point. It is important to have inclusive, coherent and clear policy frameworks that will work as the ground and the foundations for providing guidelines for practice. The mindset, as well as the overall social, health and educational approaches of a system is often evident in the discourse of its policy documents. Successful and human rights stirred assistive technology implementation should be reflected in policy making. On the other hand, through my experience as a practitioner and as an academic, it seems that what it really matters and can lead to change, is what we actually do and produce. There are examples of successful inclusive practices and assistive technology developments in all aspects (products, use, research etc) that managed to evolve, even though their policy frameworks are not AT supportive. I think the issue is not where to start from, but how you can consolidate sectors. Along the same lines, what is important, is to identify the best ways in which research and development outcomes and their practical implications, can reach policy makers and convince for change.

The answer maybe something that we have been discussing probably for 20-30 years now. Start from the people. We are all of course very keen on new technology developments, on the important steps of the industry of Assistive Technology, of all the amazing revolutionary technological advances. However, we need to keep focus and avoid technological determinism, without of course disregarding new technologies’ huge impact on quality of life. Starting from people, meaning the user and the environment, will help industry, and policy makers to acknowledge that (a) AT is a key for human rights and a human right itself and (b) what is needed is access to personalized and adaptable assistive technology to allow participation and support people in their endeavours.

AAATE: challenges and goals. What is your perspective?

I think a lot of what I mentioned above are both challenges and goals for AAATE. The world is changing, technology is changing. Everything around us can be unpredictable, not to mention the example of the current Covid-19 situation. What is important for an association like AAATE is to take the challenges, to be open and to learn from every opportunity.

In the last few years AAATE found itself in interesting and rather challenging situations. Involved in the establishment of the GAATO, a major step in the history of AT which probably can be identified as the ultimate effort for building bridges between the AT world across the globe. Such collaborations can be very powerful and function as a change agent for policy making, as discussed earlier.

Also, the assistive and mainstream technological advances consist another challenge for every stakeholder in the field. It is essential for AAATE to keep up with these developments, but at the same time stay faithful to the original values and principles that respect human diversity. 

The covid-19 pandemic has shown how rapidly systems can shift, professionals can experiment, budgets can be re-allocated. However, the shift and benefits did not reach people with disabilities and AT users the way they should have, and the discrimination gap has expanded. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to see the importance of staying connected, learn and transfer this shift to the benefits of the people with disabilities so that everyone can share equal opportunities. We are running through a digital era, and we currently realized how important is to accommodate AT users and bridge the digital divide. So, my perspective is that AAATE is challenged to address concerns around the conceptualization of disability in this digital era, address relevant discourses and get involved in actions that would promote digital inclusion, e-accessibility and embrace equal opportunities with and for the use of assistive technology.

Finally, I would like to highlight that, expanding collaborations outside Europe as well as expanding its network and membership within Europe should be always a strategic goal for AAATE. I strongly believe that the main asset of AAATE is its people and the inter-disciplinarily its membership holds, which represents the true nature of the assistive technology field like probably in no other association. So, let’s invest in this!