Remarks at Global Disability Innovation Summit

Ross Atkin speaks from lectern, Disability Innovation Summit is written on a screen behind him. As sign language interpreter stands to his right.

I was invited to speak at the Global Disability Innovation Summit held at Here East on the Olympic Park in London. I shared a slot with Tom Watt-Smith, the showrunner (producer and director) for The Big Life Fix. Tom introduced the program and covered the cultural trends that lead to a program about assistive technology getting commissioned in a primetime slot on BBC2. I used my slot to reflect on the approach we took to developing technology during the program and look at the strengths and weaknesses of scaling it to help more disabled people. I drew on some of the arguments Sam Jewell and I made in our 2013 report ‘Enabling Technology‘ which was commissioned by Scope, BT and the RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

On the Big Life Fix we, as designers and technologists, got to do something that we don’t often get to do – build technology products specifically for particular disabled individuals.

This work is in a totally different mindset from doing the ‘industrial design’ most of us do in our day jobs. Even user-centred industrial design.

There you are designing for a ‘segment’ that includes a large number of people. You try and recruit users that are representative of the segment and design around their needs, but you must focus on the needs and preferences that are common to multiple users.

Being able to focus, as we did in the Big Life Fix, not on a segment but on an individual user was an incredible privilege. It took us, and the audience, on an emotional journey,

and it was always crystal clear whether or not we had made the right thing.

Being realistic though, even at the bargain basement rates that the BBC paid us, the cost this kind of work would be beyond the means of the vast majority of disabled people. If we weren’t subsidising that work with our other jobs it would have been an order of magnitude more expensive still.

This reality check doesn’t mean that the approach we took can not benefit more disabled people, beyond those involved in the program.

I was lucky enough to have been able to explore these issues back in 2013 in a research project for Scope and the Helen Hamlyn Centre with Sam Jewell.

We realised that there was a fundamental equation at play when industrial design economics are applied to assistive technology.

As disabled people are very different from one another, the assistive technology that works best for an individual is often one that is aimed at a very narrow segment – or small group of people.

The problem is that set-up costs for industrial manufacture are usually fixed, so a narrower segment means fewer units to spread those costs over, increasing the cost of those units. This equation explains the eye-watering cost of much assistive technology.

As Sam and I pointed out back in 2013, general purpose electronic devices like smart phones and tablets and affordable digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing and laser cutting, can disrupt this equation – effectively removing this industrial set-up cost.

These are exactly the technologies we used to create the products we made in Big Life Fix and, now the design work is done, theoretically, anyone who wants a robotic camera rig like the one we made for James can download and 3D print the parts, put it together and download the app from iTunes.

How disabled people access the infrastructure to actually do this is an important question, but I’m running out of time.

The last thing I want to say is a defence of industry. Many disabled people don’t want to have to find a makerspace and some hackers, or even a shiny new East London tech startup, to get the products they need to live independently. They want products supported by a organisation they can rely on.

The UK Assistive Technology industry leads the world and is full of dedicated designers and technologists who work every day to improve the lives of thousands of disabled people.

I’m lucky to count some of these companies like Stannah and TFH as clients and I know there is so much we here could do to ensure that more disabled people get the support to benefit from their work.

Outside of assistive tech there is a growing awareness in industry that designing for disability makes business sense. For me getting to work with companies like Marshalls, the UK’s largest manufacturer of landscaping products and Cusack, the largest suppler of roadworks equipment, on accessibility technology projects affords the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of huge numbers of disabled people up and down the country.

I believe that as technologists, reaching out to industry, even in less fashionable parts of the country and focusing on partnership rather than disruption is most likely to maximise the positive impact of our work.