Thoughts on the ‘Collaborative Innovation  – involving disabled people in user-led innovation’ PolicyLab


I was a member of the panel for last week’s PolicyLab on Collaborative innovation – involving disabled people in user-led innovation.


Questions at the heart of engagement

During the discussion session, the first couple of questions from the floor really emphasised something I think is important, one person asking when disabled people would be accepted into society, the other demanding that disabled people were involved in decisions affecting them.

Tram ramp

Image credit: Lasart75 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Both questions are at the heart of my engagement with disability issues; I believe strongly that society at large, government and individual organisations are excluding disabled people by not making their premises accessible to mobility impaired people and their services available to everyone.

We need to do more to include disabled people in society.

Individual disabled people are the best judge of what suits them best, and their needs and desires should be taken into account.

I recall one wheelchair user saying that it was part of his persona, he’d been using one since birth and couldn’t really see himself as disabled – that was who he was.

Nikki Fox, the BBC disability affairs correspondent said on BBC’s Breakfast programme last week that she preferred to use her mobility scooter because it was easier to get around.

Priorities for science and technology

The main aim of the PolicyLab was to consider priorities for science and technology to develop new devices to help those who do want to be more independent.

It was very interesting listening to Claire Mookerjee talk about the collaboration between several large companies to develop a more accessible environment for blind people.

I’ve always wondered why technologies like mobile phones, sat nav and wifi can’t be joined up to give directions to blind people not just around the streets but inside buildings, moving seamlessly from sat nav outside to lock onto a building’s wifi and a detailed floor plan?

Assisting disabled people to study

For me, as a university disability officer, the main concern remains assisting disabled people to study their chosen subject at university.

As Chair of the STEM Disability Committee, my focus is clearly on science and technology subjects.  Dyslexic students make up about 70% of all registered disabled students – so my personal focus is on systems to enhance their capability to take notes and create essays.

Ideally universities should focus on the core skills of assimilating knowledge rather than being trapped in a world of printed text and handwritten essays.

As the government moves to reduce the scope of the Disabled Student Allowance, universities must develop more inclusive environments and alternative methods of assessment.

More imaginative solutions

Technology can and already does help, but as I noted in my blog post before the event, one gap that still exists is in voice recognition – universal voice recognition; that is software to recognise any speaker’s voice, not just the one it is trained to, and turn it into text.

Such software would enable the ’capture’ of any conversation or lecture for dyslexic, deaf or blind people.  As was noted by a hearing impaired member of the audience, those with some hearing may still want to take notes, as she was, to keep their mind focused (which is the only reason I take notes, my handwriting is barely legible even to me!) but anyone who is totally deaf would not have the luxury of taking notes.

I suggested that better prosthetics should be developed but could we go further and create more imaginative solution to lost limbs?

Maybe stem cell technology to grow replacement limbs?

Or could we get humans to regenerate limbs in the way lizards and salamanders replace lost tails and limbs (see interview with Michael Levin in New Scientist)?

We have the dreams – how can they be turned into reality?