“For people without disabilities, technology makes things easier.
For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.”
IBM Training Manual, 1991.
What is assistive technology?
Assistive products and technology are defined as “any product, instrument, equipment or technology adapted or specially designed for improving the functioning of a disabled person”. This includes ‘off-the-shelf’ mainstream devices (for example, the latest Amazon Echo advert features people with disabilities benefiting from voice control), and specialist solutions. It is recognised by the World Health Organisation that any product or technology can be assistive.
A child can be prevented from reaching their full potential by a brain injury or disability. Assistive technology has the power to unlock that potential, kick starting a journey of discovery and achievement. Early access to assistive technology can make a real difference to how a child engages with their education and interacts with their environment, so the earlier it can be introduced, the better.
Types of assistive technology
Assistive technology is about providing solutions for communication, entertainment, learning and independence, to enable individuals to realise their potential and maximise their abilities in all aspects of life.
For children living with a disability, assistive technology broadly fits in to the following categories:
These range from very simple charts and picture books, through to specialist electronic communication aids with joystick, switch or eye-gaze operation. Voice-output technology is becoming more widely available, which allows the user to generate sentences that are spoken for them by the device, enabling them to communicate their own needs and engage in conversation with others.
Environmental controls encompass a range of technology that enables the user to perform many of the ordinary daily tasks of living that would otherwise be impossible due to their disabilities. For example, automated doors, windows, curtains and light-switches can be installed in an adapted property to allow an individual to move around their home and change their environment without having to rely on others.
Computers and IT
Tablet computers with specialist software or adaptations to mobile phones, PCs or gaming hardware can be provided to aid in a child’s education and leisure activities, allowing them to operate devices themselves or with limited assistance.
Technology for care
When care is being provided by people outside of the family, it can be beneficial to have items such as keypad operated door locks installed for security and to prevent loss of keys, and a separate computer for carers to perform admin tasks. A carer may also benefit from training in the use of any technology and procedures for updating software to ensure that the brain-injured individual is always supported in their use of assistive technology.
How can my child access assistive technology?
Suitable assistive technology solutions are identified through individual assessments, at home or in school, and ongoing intervention, ideally by an experienced and qualified technology consultant. The consultant will develop bespoke, innovative solutions that promote independence for that child to meet their aspirations, working with their support networks in their home, school and workplace.
Training the support team, including parents, teachers and carers, to effectively embrace the use of assistive technology is the most vital component for its success. If those around the child do not understand the technology or know how it functions, the less likely the child will be able to benefit.
Due to the ever-changing needs and aspirations of children and young users of technology, and the rapid progress in technologies, ongoing reviews are essential to maintain engagement and purpose.
It is also important to make sure children are inherently motivated to use their technologies. They have to see the value, and the value has to exceed the effort in using or learning the system in order to be successful. Discovering the child’s needs, likes, dislikes, and aspirations, identifying the barriers to achieving them, and developing solutions to bridge those gaps is the role of an assistive technology consultant.
Developing life-long users of assistive technology requires consistent review and training. It is a process, not an event, and where successful, assistive technology can become a seamless, integral part of life. For children with a disability, it is more about being able to ‘turn on the light’ rather than to ‘push the switch’.
How can I fund assistive technology for my child?
The main concern in accessing assistive technology is how to pay for it, as having the appropriate technology with the associated support does come at a cost. However, there are two key methods of funding that do not involve a family paying out of their own pocket, as we set out below.
1. An award of compensation from a clinical negligence or personal injury claim
Where a child has acquired a brain injury, either at birth or at a later stage, due to substandard medical care or accident due to the fault by a third party, a claim for brain injury compensation can be made.
Compensation in brain injury claims is in large part aimed at enhancing a child’s development and giving them back as much independence as possible to interact with their world. Assistive technology plays an important role in that and so most claims will involve an expert assessment of a child’s technology needs, both for now and in their future. It is from this assessment that the requirements will be quantified. Providing that the claim is successful, an award of compensation will be paid to cover the costs of the recommended assistive technology for the rest of the child’s life, including regular reviews and provision of new equipment and training.
Early interim payments of compensation can be made as soon as there is an admission of liability to allow assistive technology to be introduced at the soonest possible stage. This ensures that the child can start benefitting in their key developmental years whilst the remainder of the claim is quantified.
2. Local Authority funding under an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)
Not all needs for assistive technology arise from negligently caused brain injuries or conditions. For some children, their local authority might assist in funding their assistive technology requirements.
An Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) is a legal document which brings legal entitlement to certain provisions for a child with Special Educational Needs from birth until the age of 25 years. Under a child’s EHCP, a local authority is legally responsible for meeting and supporting the educational outcomes (Section B), together with any health (Section C) and care (Section D) outcomes providing they assist with a child’s special educational needs.
Where any health or care needs are deemed to “educate or train” this should be considered as a special education need and should be included within Section B of the EHCP. This will often include provisions for assistive technology, as without them many children would not be able to access learning.
It is therefore imperative that all special educational outcomes that are identified in Section B have provisions detailed in Section F (the ‘provisions’ section) of the EHCP to ensure that the Local Authority is then bound to fund them. The provisions must be detailed and specific and explain exactly how the child or young person will achieve their desired outcomes.
For example, under Section B it might stipulate that a special education need of a child is “assistance with communication to aid the child’s learning”. If it is considered essential for a child to have access to eye gaze technology or speech recognition software as it is the sole or main means of communication, this can be included in the provision under Section F as it relates to a Special Education Need Outcome as detailed in Section B. Any assistive technology, which will help a child achieve those outcomes, should be included. It must be clear under Section F how the provision is formulated including:
- What the provision will be, i.e. access to a voice-output device in the classroom
- Who will provide the provision;
- When will it be provided, i.e. frequency; and
It is important to remember that once an EHCP has been finalised, it will be the Local Authority’s responsibility to fund and implement the provisions detailed in Section F. This is why it is so important to make sure the provision is detailed. Ordinarily, the Local Authority will provide the funds to the educational placement (stipulated in Section I) directly.
Parents and young persons are recommended to play an active role in the drafting an EHCP. A Local Authority must send a draft EHCP to the parents/young person to review and allow 15 calendar days to comment on the EHCP, request a meeting with the Local Authority and provide any preferences. If you consider that access to assistive technology that supports your child’s special educational needs hasn’t been included there will be opportunities at the meeting to request that the draft EHCP be amended to include appropriate assistive technology provisions.
What if your child already has an EHCP that doesn’t provide for assistive technology needs?
You might be in a situation where your child has an EHCP that does not adequately contain provision for assistive technology in support of their special educational needs. The question is what other options are available to you?
- Once an EHCP is in place, there will be an annual review within the first 12 months. This will involve discussions to review the EHCP and ensure the provisions and outcomes are suitable. It may be the case that a child’s needs have changed in the last 12 months and alternative assistive technology provisions are required. If the Local Authority decide the EHCP doesn’t meet a child’s needs and amends are required, the decision must be communicated in 4 weeks of the annual review meeting. Again, the parents or young person will have 15 calendar days to review and make representations about the amendments. A revised plan must then be issued within 8 weeks of the parents/young person’s proposed amendments.
- In addition, it would be recommended that a complaint is made through the Local Authorities internal complaints procedure. This can take place at any point during the assessment process or after the EHCP has been finalised.
- On receipt of the response, if you consider the Local Authority’s response is not adequate then an application can be submitted with the Ombudsman to provide an independent decision.
- There is also the route of Appeals with the First Tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability), otherwise known as a SEND tribunal. Appeals are designed to be accessible for parents/young persons but can only be brought in particular circumstances, including the content of Section B and F if they don’t sufficiently provide for a child/young person’s special educational needs. An appeal must be done within 2 months of the date of notice of the Local Authorities decision or 1 month of a mediation certificate. Appeals can be expensive however as legal representation is often required and private expert assessments of needs may need to be obtained. Therefore, an appeal should only be considered after other options have been exhausted.
Laura Cook is a Partner at CL Medilaw who work closely with many families with children who have an acquired brain injury or brain condition arising out of medical negligence or personal injury. CL Medilaw are dedicated to changing the lives of their clients by making legal matters as straight forward as possible and securing early provision of support to really make a difference to the families they represent.
Mike Thrussell is an Assistive Technology Consultant and Director at Access:Technology, a company that provides technology assessments and intervention for children and adults with disabilities. Mike and his team are passionate about sharing their expert knowledge of how assistive technology can transform the lives of those living with disabilities and making it accessible to all.