First Global Campaign for Access to Assistive Technology is Launched at Davos
Filmmaker Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes, a global advocate on disability rights, and ATscale CEO Pascal Bijleveld address the launch in Davos.

“It’s not just about people with disabilities, this is about all of us,” stresses Pascal Bijleveld, the CEO of ATscale Global Partnership, an organization established in 2018 to advocate for assistive technologies (AT) access, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

The first-ever global campaign to expand access, ‘Unlock the Everyday’, was launched on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, led by ATscale together with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Disability Alliance and other partners.

The term assistive technology (AT) describes a broad range of products and their related systems and services – from the most basic, like eyeglasses to access ramps for people with motor impairments and smartphone text- to- speech functions, explained Bijleveld.

An estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide need at least one form of assistive technology, with the most common devices being eye glasses, hearing aids, prostheses and wheelchairs. By 2050, the number is likely to increase to 3.5 billion, says WHO.

But access to AT is more than uneven: in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) only 10% of those in need can obtain appropriate devices in contrast to 90% in high-income countries.

‘My wheelchair is my independence’

“Assistive technology is a bridge that connects individuals with disabilities, ageing populations, and those suffering from non-communicable diseases to a world of opportunities – opportunities for education, employment, and above all, inclusion in society,” said the First Lady of Pakistan, Begum Samina Arif Alvi, who is encouraging global leaders to support the campaign.

During the launch, speakers representing ATscale  and other campaign partners discussed the importance of AT and the role different stakeholders can play in bringing about change.:

“My wheelchair is my legs. My wheelchair is my independence. [Without it] I wouldn’t have studied, or be able to go around and spread the word and travel,”  said Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes, a filmmaker and global advocate for disability rights

The campaign is largely directed at governments, and calls for greater investment in AT and related services through appropriate, inclusive policies.

“Without government support, we’ll never reach sufficient AT access – the market forces alone are not enough,” highlighted Bijleveld, in an interview with Health Policy Watch ahead of the event.

Nonetheless, the campaign is also appealing to other stakeholders who have their part to play: including private sector and bilateral development partners, which often neglect AT needs in programmes and initiatives to foster more inclusive health services.

Nine-to-one investment return

Ensuring lifetime access to the AT they need for people in LMIC would cost approximately $70 billion over 55 years, the campaign estimates.

But there is a nine-to-one return on investment from providing AT through improved educational outcomes, better paid employment and lower longer-term healthcare costs, a recent ATscale study shows. Yet those benefits are often overlooked by policy makers.

Bijleveld, admits that health financing choices are often difficult, especially on a tight budget: “For some countries it might be a matter of, say, picking between AT and malaria vaccine subsidies. In such cases there is a tendency to favor the option that is more visibly live-saving.”

Eyeglasses or smartphones? Hard to choose

Asked to identify the most important AT, Bijleveld says it is difficult to rank.

Some might go for eyeglasses, he observed, because of the huge number of people – estimated to be about two billion – who need corrective glasses.

But a smartphone is an equally useful AT because of its versatility, he pointed out. It can provide a text-to-speech function or speech recognition, magnify text, and provide other, less standard visual aids. It also helps those who have trouble hearing: from captioning to sign language translating applications. It can help people to navigate through a city and also to communicate without having to go to a physical destination.

By raising the profile of the issue and promoting collaboration between organizations and sectors, Unlock the Everyday hopes to reach more inclusion through AT.

“We truly believe that by uniting partners, policymakers, global decision-makers, the private sector, communities and of course, assistive technology users themselves, we can create a global movement that will motivate those in a position of power to take decisive action,” he concluded.

As  the proportion of older people grows worldwide,  AT will become all the more necessary on a global level. But AT accessibility for older people can also help achieve more inclusion for people living with disabilities

“Captioning is a good example,” Bijleveld observed. “If you’ll get it right for somebody needing AT, you’ll get it right for everyone.”

Image Credits: Devex.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.