Assistive Technology, Accessibility and Playfulness – a recap of #AAATE2023

End of August 2023, the 17h International Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE) took place in Paris, France. 128 scientific paper presentations were accompanied by 8 policy sessions, 17 education sessions and 20 presentations in the innovation area. We summarized some of the key topics discussed. 

It is impossible to capture the breadth and depth of discussions taking place when an international expert audience comes together for a three-day conference with 8 parallel tracks of scientific contributions, policy, education and innovation sessions. Yet, we tried to provide a glimpse at the key themes in the collection of impressions below. 

Tiago Guerreiro is Associate Professor at Universidade de Lisboa (Faculdade de Ciências) and a researcher at LASIGE opened the conference talking about this engagement with communities of people with disabilities to create designing inclusive technologies that promote collaboration, playfulness, and self-efficacy in the contexts of inclusive learning, inclusive gaming, and human-robot interaction. He emphasized the dangers of accessibility as an after-thought and shared different methodologies applied to get a deeper understanding of the communities we collaborate with, and the impact of interventions on the user. 

DATEurope, the European Industry Association for Digital Assistive Technology, organized a panel discussion on the funding landscape for digital assistive technology (AT). Building on research (Banes 2016, DFI/Enable Ireland 2017, Thompson 2018), which stressed the vital role that assistive and accessible consumer technologies play in the lives of those with a disability, including access to education and employment and improving the quality of daily life, the panellists discussed some rare examples of where digital AT is being funded. There is an interconnection between AT funding and (lack of) an AT ecosystem, but beyond funding the process, the delivery and the ecosystem that underpin the (digital) AT are crucial for successful use or abandonment of the technology. 

AAATE and UNICEF co-organised a policy session on building AT and AAC capacity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Alternative and augmented communication (AAC) and AT play an important role in the development pathway of children with disabilities. UNICEF has 

developed a framework to facilitate the access to appropriate AT and its proficient use. 

According to a 2022 UNICEF Report, lack of AT is one of the major reasons why children with disabilities experience higher levels of exclusion compared to other children. Among 240 million children with disabilities, 1 in 10 does not have access to AT. 49% are more likely to have never attended schools and the report provides other grim statistics. The developed framework for building capacity for AT and AAC for children provides high level performance descriptors for an AT ecosystems supporting children with disabilities, and raises specific questions that can be used to assess a country or ecosystem. 

Representatives of the two EU projects SHAPES and SEURO came together to discuss ideas for a European policy on person-centred digital technologies in integrated care. Integrated care (often system-level) and person-centred care often do not go together, but digital technologies could possibly be the bridge and allow us to provide high-quality care to an ageing population in a sustainable way. Many efforts so far have met resistance among stakeholders or have to deal with different national care systems and cultures, including expectations from care receivers. The Shapes of Care document, acknowledges the potential of person-centred technology to boost integrated care, but it also lists recommendations for policymakers that have the responsibility, and opportunity, to change the care landscape in Europe over the next decennia. 

Important aspects that currently do not get enough attention include the ambitions of older people who want an improved quality of life, cultural and value differences, a participatory approach to care, the importance of up-skilling the care workforce, as well as the need for accessibility to all groups not just the core target group. The technology sector has failed to respond to the needs of people with disabilities and older people, co-design practices are not well implemented, and there is a crucial lack of awareness and evidence on the impact of technology on the quality of life and independent living. 

The final plenary session explored ideas to assuring universal access to AT. We have incredible expertise and many tools and frameworks, but we need people on the ground who help policy makers make sense of it and help create a unifying concept for the provision of AT. We need to acknowledge that digital AT is different from traditional AT and requires ongoing support. We need people on the ground to democratize technology and give the most severally disabled people access to education and employment.

The conference concluded with the Best Paper Award for “MS@Work in Flanders: the Development of a MS Toolkit for a Stable Employment” by Sharona Vonck, and the Diamond Awards. Usually AAATE only accords one award as personal recognition for advancing AT in Europe, but this year Diamonds were given to both Professor Christian Bühler for major contributions for more than 30 years in the field, and Prof. Julio Abascal for his tireless work in advancing AT in human-computer interaction and ICT. 

The keynotes can be viewed at:

AAATE2023 keynotes:

#AAATE2023 keynotes have been recorded and can be viewed on YouTube.

The next AAATE conference will take place in 2025 and we hope to equal if not top the level of quality and creativity in discussions and cordial exchange.