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


It was an interesting experience to be invited to the Royal Society to take part in the panel discussion (Policy Lab) ‘Collaborative innovation – involving disabled people in user-led innovation’.

The panel was chaired by an academic (Professor Geoffrey Boulton FRS) and consisted of two academics (Dr. John Conway and Stephen Hicks), Claire Mookerjee from Future Cities Catapult and myself.

I was struck by the obviously different priorities of the panel – not that these differences are in any way a bad thing. I am not an academic, I have done some research, mainly around assistive technology, computing and communication and I have written a few papers, presented at various conferences etc. but my main area of work is very practical.

At Scope’s Beaumont College we are at the sharp end of accessibility. We see what works, what does not work and what frankly irritates people – on a daily basis.

Jodie uses a Windows Tablet via a ‘head-mouse camera’ to speak, access computing and to control her ECS

Jodie uses a Windows Tablet via a ‘head-mouse camera’ to speak, access computing and to control her ECS. Image courtesy of Scope.

The student group at Beaumont College would be amongst the most digitally excluded people there are (people with a disability) – that is they would be on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’ if we did not run an assistive technology service that can provide genuine accessibility through the use of needs based assessment (this is a process, not an event) and the provision and customisation of devices that are literally tailored to the individual’s needs (and indeed their interests).

Person-centred approach at Beaumont College

Kirstie uses an iPad to access her Environmental Control Systems (ECS)

Kirstie uses an iPad to access her Environmental Control Systems (ECS). Image courtesy of Scope.

At Scope’s Beaumont College we use a very person centred approach. We are in the business of teaching and learning, and we have to be responsive to the learning and other support needs of our students.

When we work with researchers, companies and others who are developing products our students are being asked to, in effect, test for accessibility. In this way our students are acting as ‘design consultants’.

We do not think it is possible to build a product and expect disabled people to be able to use it without proper consultation and involvement in what should be a co-design or co-production exercise. The process can equally be applied to a service as to a product as is explored in Scope’s Enabling Technology Report.

We need more awareness of what already exists

When you spend time working closely with people who have access needs that are not addressed by so many services and products it can be frustrating (but not as frustrating as it is for the people whose needs are not being met).

So while I am very happy for people to ‘future gaze’ or conduct ‘environmental scanning’ it’s worth considering that what we might really need is not more research as such – but more awareness of what already exists and what techniques or approaches need to be taught to designers and developers in order to ensure that their products and services are accessible.

Ross Atkin’s ‘SketchNotes’ of the panel discussion

Ross Atkin’s ‘SketchNotes’ of the panel discussion – click for full view

I am not advocating that we should not do accessibility research, but I am saying that some resources should be allocated to disseminating the tools and knowledge that we already know works.

One comment in the debate from the CEO of Ability Net, Nigel Lewis, stayed with me – in effect Nigel was saying that disability charities and other groups are not joined up in their approach and are creating lots of similar messages around accessibility which can dilute the message.

This I agree with, and it is indeed something we should move to address in order to effect the change that is obviously needed.

I have included Ross Atkin’s ‘SketchNotes’ of the panel discussion, which sum up the event better than I can articulate. Ross Atkin (Ross Atkin Consulting) is one of the authors of the Enabling Technologies report along with Sam Jewell (Matopy Ltd).