New technology is key to overcoming disability exclusion — but the most important tech is centuries old

James Chen
Jul 25, 2018 · 4 min read

Six years ago, 3.4 billion people[] tuned in to watch the Paralympic Games at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. It was a record-breaking, convention-busting week that put disabled athletes, presenters and commentators on TV screens around the world. It was credited with creating a seismic shift in the public perception[]of Paralympic sport, and of a disability as a whole.

Queen Elizabeth Park, yesterday, played host to a much smaller scale — but no less significant — event. On 24th July, the UK hosted the first-ever ‘Global Disability Summit’.

The event brought together more than 700 delegates from governments, donors, NGOs, businesses and specialist charities to ‘mobilise new global and national commitments on disability’, bringing international attention to this ‘long-neglected area’.

For those of us who have spent their careers campaigning for greater action on this far too long-neglected issue, the Summit holds enormous promise and the potential to leave behind a far greater legacy than the 2012 games. But the stakes are higher too.

It is estimated that one in seven people around the world has a disability[] — and 80 per cent of them live in a developing country.

Today, people living with a disability in a developing country are more than two times less likely to go to school,[] are frequently excluded from healthcare initiatives and are at a significantly greater risk of violent attack and sexual assault. Across the region, rates of employment among people with a disability are chronically reduced and social exclusion is commonplace.

The Global Disability Summit, co-hosted with the Government of Kenya, and representing countries from across the Global South, is a vital opportunity to focus attention on disability, an issue that has historically been long overlooked by regional governments, and unreached by a significant portion of international aid efforts.

However, standing in the London head office of Microsoft to announce the summit, the Secretary of State for International Development underlined that the world has never been in a better position to tackle this global challenge. Advances in technology, many championed by IT giants like Microsoft, are creating vital new tools to overcome centuries-old barriers to disability inclusion.

Breakthroughs in 3D printing and bio-electronics are creating prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by muscle signals, eye tracking technology is giving individuals with paralysis or degenerative movement a new voice through breakthrough language software, and voice-recognition technology is opening up access for the visually impaired. Indeed, in my field of work — vision — those advances have been particularly significant.

In the developing world, the sudden proliferation of mobile technology has been transformative to health care systems; creating GPS technology to map a country without postcodes for delivery-drones to reach patients with vital medicines and supplies, and mobile tools to connect patients in rural areas with specialists from thousands of miles away.

One start-up that has harnessed the promise of mobile technology is remote-diagnostics app, Vula Mobile, which allows primary healthcare workers to take and share test results and scans with on-call specialists, who can offer diagnostic treatment advice, across borders, and from miles away. This month marked Vula’s 50,000th medical referral — as it has expanded to meet the needs not just of ophthalmologists but specialists from cardiologists to orthopaedic surgeons.

UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and her team are set to put advances like these front and centre of the upcoming summit with an exhibition area and significant focus on the agenda.

However, whilst the immense promise of new technologies is a key factor in making a difference to the lives of those with disabilities in the developing world, the decision-makers at this landmark Summit must not forget other factors — such as the distribution and cost of centuries-old inventions that remain inaccessible to much of the developing world.

In much of the Global South the most primary assistive technologies like wheelchairs and glasses — which have been around for 400 and 700 years respectively — are too prohibitively expensive to distribute widely.

In many instances, however, those costs are entirely avoidable. For example, typically, reading glasses can be sold for US$1 and prescription glasses for as low as US$5. Yet, around the world, the price of glasses at point of sale are drastically inflated.

In Uganda, for example, prices for corrective lenses with a simple frame start at US $41–55 which, in a country where much of the population earn between $2-$5 per day, makes this life-changing technology an unaffordable luxury.

The reason behind that price inflation is two-fold: firstly, glasses are subject to crippling import duties and tax in countries around the world — and their sale is often protected to specialists, meaning they can’t be sold in accessible local shops.

Yet it’s estimated that 90 per cent of all cases of poor vision could be resolved by a simple pair of glasses.

Through Clearly, a global campaign I founded two years ago, we’re calling for governments to remove the tax and import duties on all non-branded glasses, as well as democratising their sale to local retailers. We believe that these two simple changes could reduce costs by up to 90 per cent and transform access to a simple solution to one of the world’s widest-reaching disabilities: poor vision.

Open-source low-cost designs for wheelchairs, adaptable to tougher-terrains are also well-underway, but need the combined support of donors, industry and local governments to scale their impact and reach.

At the Summit, leaders had an opportunity to come together to support investment in the latest tech with the simple policies that will bring centuries-old technologies to the people who need them most.

A recent article from Gerard Howe, the Head of Inclusive Societies at the Department for International Development said ‘we need everyone [attending] to set the highest level of ambition, to be bold and brave in their commitment’. Queen Elizabeth Park is once again host to a seismic event providing the opportunity for the rights of people with disabilities around the world.

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