More than a billion people are estimated to be living with disabilities (source WHO).
One of the main problems for people with disabilities is their lack of independence. Their dependency on others is excluding them from our society, from employment opportunities, and adversely affecting their dignity and self-esteem.
Assistive Technology (AT) has been proven to make a significant change in the lives of people with disabilities. It can drastically improve their quality of lives, make them more independent, and enable their inclusion in their communities.
Assistive technology is defined as: “any product or service that maintains or improves the ability of individuals with disabilities or impairments to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives” (source British Assistive Technology Association).
And yet, to ensure that assistive devices are appropriate and used effectively, they need to suit both environment and user, and need to be accompanied by adequate follow-up of a rehab professional (occupational therapist, etc.).
Unfortunately, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, only 10% of people living with disabilities are actually using assistive technology in their daily lives. In low and mid-income countries, the number is even as low as 5%. This is a critical unmet need, and a great opportunity for a significant global impact.
In my humble opinion, the solution requires a two-prong approach: increase the rate and scale of innovation and availability of assistive technology, and at the same time improve the adaptation and effective usage of these products and services.
To increase the innovation of assistive technology there is a need to encourage more entrepreneurship in this space. Today, there is an abundance of so-called hi-tech entrepreneurs, who are taking advantage of the many great ecosystems that were created to make it easier, simpler and faster to develop innovative products and services, and start new companies.
These ecosystems include startup accelerator programs and incubators, a wealth of VCs and private investors competing to invest in these startup companies, and many service providers, such as lawyers, accounting firms, design and manufacturing companies that have created new business models targeted at engaging startup companies from day 1.
Moreover, there is tremendous hype and publicity around hi-tech entrepreneurs, who have gained fame and celebrity status. And technology startups are now the most desired companies to work for.
On the other hand, social or impact entrepreneurs, face a very different reality.
There are only two accelerator programs in the world for assistive technology (A3I, Remarkable); there are very few impact investors, and no ecosystems to assist them in converting their great ideas into successful products and social businesses.
This must change!
If we want to have more innovation in the field of assistive technology we need to encourage more entrepreneurs to make it their purpose in life. Simply put, we must create similar ecosystems for impact entrepreneurs to those that exist for hi-tech entrepreneurs. This needs to be a coordinated effort of leaders (including successful impact entrepreneurs and thought leaders), socially responsible global brands (i.e. large global corporations), impact investors, and governments.
Such an effort can create the required awareness and incentives that are needed to encourage more entrepreneurship, and make a real impact in the world of people with disabilities.
In addition to creating ecosystems for impact entrepreneurs, there is a need to train rehabilitation professionals on matching and adapting assistive technologies for people with disabilities.
They need tools and training that will enable them to easily and quickly find and match the right solution for their client, and apply it effectively to their client’s environment and needs. Such tools will significantly improve rehab professionals ability to leverage assistive technology to increase people with disabilities’ independence and improve their quality of life.
Inclusion of people with disabilities in our society is not just doing a good thing, and the right thing. It’s the smart thing. When 15% of the world’s population is sidelined and not participating we’re not functioning at our full capacity and potential. Just imagine what great things we can accomplish when we will operate at our full potential.
That’s the real impact potential of technology innovation.