Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rev Gail Thompson, the CEO Founder of Millennium Community Solutions CIC (MCS). I have multiple sclerosis but my life is not defined by my disability. As a wheelchair user for over 35 years, I have observed a plethora of barriers, negative attitudes and derogatory comments against individuals like myself who are not seen as the norm. But frustration has driven me to devise a solution of my own, by turning the difficulties of being less able into a flourishing organisation.
Assistive technology or AT, is a generic term that describes tools used by people with impairments to accomplish tasks. AT has been my lifesaver. It empowers me and reinforces my ability to live independently. Running a business from home is popular with entrepreneurs, for reasons such as convenience, cost savings and flexibility. For people who are affected by health issues or restrictions, a home setting can also provide the freedom and flexibility needed to run a successful business. It has taken all the determination I can muster to overcome the challenges and has fuelled my desire to run my own business and the familiarity and the home office that helped facilitate it.
As a community interest company, MCS acknowledges that people with disabilities and special needs experience widespread digital exclusion. We use the disability led model to build up information, gather and share this direct voice of a lived experience with like-minded stakeholders, partners and associates.
Our objective has always been to reduce barriers resulting from lack of appropriate assistive technology and digital skills that prove to be obstacles for people with limitations. We design and deliver bespoke advice and training courses that addresses inequality, inequity, diversity, and inclusion, to ensure that our user members are valued as important contributors to the society. Central to this is our support for the right to have equal digital needs assessment and the technology to support day-to-day domestic life, employment and social connectivity.
Constraints occur when people are confronted with inaccessible environments where their needs for participation are not met. A 2019 Scope report revealed that half of the people surveyed in the UK, who experience connectivity problems when buying goods or services through a website, app or in-store machine, did not purchase the product. Similarly, 3 in 4 how do you mean you will come here at Christmas and expose I know I know people walked away from UK businesses citing poor accessibility.
Three main barriers including:
1. lack of appropriate staff training and support,
2. negative staff attitudes, and
3. Procurement and management of the right equipment and staff time constraints.
While much progress has been made in some areas of development of assistive tech, the overall picture emerging from the latest data is that disabled people are facing more barriers and falling further behind in regard to the use of technology. It is a badge of shame on our society that millions of disabled people in Britain are still not being treated as equal citizens. Despite the emphasis in mechanics and the rapid proliferation of assistive smart devices, fragmented systems mean that little is known about the technology as well as the systems and processes of acquisition within which they work.
AT can be liberating, creating opportunities and independence, but it is not always easy to know where to begin, who to talk to, or what questions to ask when starting the process of obtaining appropriate technology, and for that reason, there is a resolve by MCS to address and simplify acquisition of the Smart tools that has proven to be a challenge. Our objective, to be a leading service that acts as a pipeline to bring together the technology users, corporate companies, consultants, borough councils, and government, resulting in the free availability, development and commercialisation of what should be day-to-day digital tools.
MCS is collating information for a new publication, an “Assistive Technology Toolkit”, a veritable clearinghouse of the different technologies available and their applicability for users to help overcome the daily struggle & to have an equitable access to the digital world and the benefits it brings. The comprehensive and clear guide through the often-confusing maze of technology will empower & provide information and guidance about smart hardware, software and adaptations to educators, therapists, service users, families and rehabilitation specialists. To assist us, we will have the assistance of the Digital poverty alliance (DPA) who believes that there are some fantastic solutions to the digital divide but from a user perspective, these are often fragmented and don’t meet the total needs of the person and the people who are supporting them. Working with the DPA, we aim to encourage co-production in the creation of person-centered AT Community access, opportunities and equality for all abilities.
Our associates provide a mechanism for the organisation to work together and adapt policies to better reflect the needs and abilities. MCS is in a constant state of relationship-building, forging associates and partnerships in order to bring together parties that will instigate improvement and fuel that mission.
We are fortunate to be invited to be work alongside some of UKs foremost leaders in the AT industry, most recently the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), a member-based organisation who believes that “digital inequality and its definition needs to be featured in current agendas including social ability and that new level of connectivity and technology are further compounding and causing new exclusions, and reproducing and amplifying the division which exists”.
BATA editor in chief Carolyne Smith, & BATA Council member Myles Pilling, CEO of Digital Unite, Emma Weston OBE, and many more. So far, their contributions have been invaluable in guiding us to the movers and shakers in the digital world of AT and how our initiatives will best serve those with disabilities. We would be unable to achieve its aims without these partners pooling resources and creating that leverage for us to go further.
The need for increased accessibility is clear. The bottom line is to normalise AT as an essential part of day-to-day living, including provision of high-quality and equitable services to all abilities. Help us to make a world where accessibility tools and services are provided to all and not just driven by compliance.