“Giving disabled people a voice.” It was a sentence I heard spoken last week from an individual totally passionate about what he does, incredibly skilful and clever, and committed to supporting disabled people to communicate independently.
It made my heart miss a beat with excitement as I remembered the story of how Purple’s predecessor organisation, ecdp, was originally created. Back in the mid 1990’s at a health and social care conference, the day was spent discussing issues around disability. Only those talking were non-disabled professionals despite there being disabled people in the room. As the conference ended, Phil Miller metaphorically stood up (he was a wheelchair user) and announced the day had convinced him disabled people needed a voice and he would set up an organisation so the same thing would not happen again.
Nearly 25 years later Purple’s vision is driven by a mission to provide disabled people with that voice. But a voice in the modern world increasingly involves technology. Most people fully embrace the concept of technology being the great enabler, a gateway to communication, information guidance and the purchasing of goods and services. However, if the technology is not accessible at a basic level, the gate is firmly shut to many disabled people. At another level, the rapid development of assistive technology is opening up a whole new online world for people with the widest range of disabilities for whom the art of the possible has now become a reality.
My first foray with assistive technology was not a success. I tried one of the very early voice recognition packages and found it deeply frustrating. Although it was another F word that littered everything I wrote and indicated all was not well! Now, voice recognition is now pretty much standard and can be trained to a high degree of sophistication in less than 10 minutes. Wider assistive technology is prevalent in so many arenas. In education, it has brought online learning to life. Alarms can be set, curtains opened and closed, and lights can be switched on and off by the sound of words. And it has provided access to social media where, whether we like it or not, most people now use to communicate.
Not being able to communicate is hugely isolating. In a post COVID-19 world the need for more assistive technology becomes a necessity. Assistive technology can literally provide a voice. Think Stephen Hawking. Think Lost Voice Guy. Two brilliant leaders in their chosen fields but for whom without assistive technology would never have been heard. But it is also about the thousands upon thousands who use technology to say anything and which transcends choice and independence – two of the core principles for disabled people.
The spectrum of assistive technology is vast. The impact is enormous. From someone like me, who has a stylus with a mouthpiece which has enabled access into all things online in a low-tech way. To someone who uses their eyes to communicate a voice using high specification software.
So when that individual said giving disabled people a voice is what I do, we all seriously need to listen.
7 July 2020