MEDIA RELEASE: The Way Forward in AT

Paris, France, 1st September 2023: The 17h International Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE) concluded with a high-level panel chaired by Emma Smith, new board member of AAATE, discussing the way forward in AT, two Diamond Awards and one Best Paper Award. 

After listening to many of the presentations over the past three days, Pascal Bijleveld. from the Global Partnership for Assistive Technology ATscale concluded that by now we have many tools and frameworks in assistive technology, but we need people on the ground who help policy makers make sense of it. He still sees a lack of awareness outside the AT expert field about the potential of AT, and a lack of investments, which in turn slows down the necessary capacity building. Digital AT will be game changing no doubt, and Pascal would love to see a lot more of the AT innovation and production happening not only in the US, Europe and China, but all the other countries as well. 

Kylie Shae, head of WHO’s GATE Assistive Technology team, identified the operationalization of access to AT as priority. She agreed with Pascal that we have incredible expertise in the field, but now is the time to create guidelines that can unify the concept of AT provision. She sees a win in the momentum created so far that has led to WHO having an AT team, to programs such as ATScale having been created, and concrete deliverables such as the WHO’s Global Report on Assistive Technology. Interestingly, she would like to see the power of digital technology employed first in AT provision to reduce the gap between AT service providers and AT users. And to see AT systematically integrated in emergency response. 

Evert-Jan Hoogerwerf, Secretary-General of both AAATE and GAATO, underlined the importance of bringing different stakeholders together, discussing different aspects of technology and disability. No one is doing AT in isolation and we need to build an eco-system to bring us more effectively together, with an emphasis on improving the service provision. Even if we have ever better and faster AT solutions, we still need to create enabling environment in which the technology can be deployed effectively. 

Annalu Waller, professor at University of Dundee, sees a need to acknowledge that digital AT is different from traditional AT. Digital AT requires ongoing support and we need people on the ground to democratize technology to give the most severally disabled people access to employment, education and every other part of modern society through AT. She remembers the time of segregation, before we have achieved, at least in some countries, the recognition that disability is part of being human. She wants to see people of all abilities in all positions and institutions, so that people with disabilities can become the drivers of their own future. 

Luc de Witte, president of GAATO, appreciated the great innovations on display during these three days and the discussions in the high-level policy sessions. However, there is a link missing to the people working on the ground doing the actual work and who are struggling. Why not get inspired by the education field? Every country in the world invests into education. Why is it not the same thing to provide people with opportunities? We need that paradigm shift, we need to change the way we think about AT. Luc anticipates enormous developments in technology as underpinned by IPO’s report analyzing patents in this field. But we need to get this technological development right and for that we need the policy attention. 

Food for thought for all the conference participants and homework for some of them. 

AAATE uses the occasion of the bi-annual conference to highlight individuals who have greatly contributed to advancing assistive technology in Europe through the attribution of the Diamond Award. This year, exceptionally, we had two awardees who both have led for over 30 years by example, with enthusiasm and commitment the AT field in Europe. Namely, Christian Bühler (Germany), professor for rehabilitation technology, researcher, and founding member of AAATE, as well as Prof. Julio Abascal (Spain), co-founder of the Egokituz Laboratory on Human-Computer Interaction for Special Needs. 

The conference closed with the Best Paper Award attributed to Sharona Vonck for her paper on “MS@Work in Flanders: the Development of a MS Toolkit for a Stable Employment”. 

After three days, 150 presentations in the scientific tracks and 45 sessions in the inclusion forum with interesting content, leading to new ideas, collaborations and projects, 335 participants from 47 countries and 5 continents travel home exhausted. We are looking forward how some of the seeds planted here will grow and develop. END