'Assistive Technology' in need of assistance

In order to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in the field of assistive technology and promote substantial social change, various sectors must join forces.

Top Israeli tech executives talk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Top Israeli tech executives talk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For people with disabilities, technology is not just "Nice to Have", but a "Must". It is critical for inclusion, independence and quality of life. On one hand, advanced technology opens up a world of opportunities today unimaginable twenty years ago: From voice-control, text-to-speech and designated apps such as money readers for the blind, to devices that enable wheelchair users to walk and 3D printers that have revolutionized the development of assistive aids and made them affordable. Furthermore, many of us are unaware that the innovations we all benefit from and take for granted, such as telephone vibration, voice activation or word prediction (autocomplete) were initially designed for people with disabilities. On the other hand, technology that is not made accessible for people with disabilities can lead to exclusion and the deepening of social gaps.
The major challenge facing entrepreneurs who want to develop assistive technologies for people with disabilities is funding. While start-ups enjoy a myriad of investment opportunities for their ventures, traditional VCs are not interested in funding the niche area of assistive technology. Existing funding sources are limited to the Chief Scientist's designated fund, small impact investments, philanthropic foundations and special grants. Furthermore, any funding secured is usually needed for initial development and insufficient to support the process required to bring these products to the market.
However, it is worth investing in assistive technology from a market viewpoint. Statistics indicate that there are over one billion people worldwide (approx. 15%) who have a disability. According to a recent survey conducted by the WHO, the statistics will double over the next 30 years. There will be 2 billion people needing assistive technologies due to the growth of the elderly population. Unfortunately, many excellent ideas for solutions for people with disabilities are stuck at the prototype stage, unable to mature into a product ready for use. We are all losing from this lack of vision of market needs and transferrable know-how to the general population.
In order to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in the field of assistive technology and promote substantial social change, various sectors must join forces - public/government, business and third sectors. The government has the power to provide incentives to social investments and could also become the ‘customer’ by integrating products into its public systems and social services (like Digital Israel). It could make connections between entrepreneurs and the relevant target populations and expand the Chief Scientist's activities, e.g. by establishing an incubator or other supportive frameworks. By encouraging investment in assistive tech startups, the government would catalyze the development of more affordable products.
Hi-tech companies could also be key players in promoting assistive technology. Their economic and technological strength could be harnessed to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition, NGOs and organizations in the third sector who are familiar with the needs of the target populations ("Need Knowers") could provide professional guidance, consultation, product testing and help in reaching the target audience and the implementation process.
A great example of a seedbearing NGO-High-tech partnership is the one between Google and Beit Issie Shapiro. The two joined forces to implement "Hakol Barosh", which provides individuals with severe motor disabilities full access to smartphones and tablets, through the use of breakthrough technology developed by the Israeli start-up "Sesame Enable". The technology enables full use of these smart devices solely through head movement. Google's $1 million grant has enabled free distribution to every person in Israel who could benefit from it. Hundreds of people with disabilities are now able to join the mobile revolution and independently communicate with their loved ones, browse the internet and use applications. The belief behind this project is that no one should be left behind; that every individual should have equal access to technology and maximized independence.
The field of assistive technology demands cooperation between NGOs, the government and the business sector on a national and international level. The outcome of creative and collaborative work will likely be sustainable business models and large-scale unprecedented social impact for the benefit of us all. As Eve Andersson, Google's Senior Manager for Accessibility, argues - in a recent interview with Co.Design - today's accessibility challenges are tomorrow's breakthroughs.
Yael Elstein is Head of Technology Consulting Center, Beit Issie Shapiro. Beit Issie Shapiro is a member of IATI (Israel Advanced Technology Industries).