Learning disability technology – putting users first

The market for learning disability tech is still at an early stage, and there are lots of opportunities for developers – but they need to understand how diverse the market is

25th October 2021 about a 5 minute read
“CityMaaS spend a long time doing research and we always involve the end users in our development process, because we have to remember that our understanding of a disability is very different to that of the person actually experiencing it.” Luis Canto E Castro, partnership manager, CityMaaS

A recent report by Future Care Capital into learning disability technology found that the market is underdeveloped with opportunities for greater investment.

At an online event on learning disability technology, our panel discussed the types of technology currently available, the limitations of current technology and the opportunities for future development in the space. The panellists were:

  • Dr Peter Bloomfield, head of policy and research, FCC
  • Cristina Ruiz, consultant, Newmarket Strategy
  • Tracey Richards, assistive technology lead, Mencap
  • Luis Canto E Castro, partnership manager, CityMaaS

Dr Peter Bloomfield and Cristina Ruiz opened by giving an overview of the findings in the FCC report. Introducing the research, Peter said that they were “focusing on technology that can improve people’s lives and help not with just the provision of care, but also access to care, and thinking about how people can live healthier, better and more enriched lives.”

Cristina said the report aimed to do four things:

  • Provide a snapshot of the technologies in development in England at the moment
  • Provide an understanding of the trends in learning disability technology pre- and post Covid
  • Describe the opportunity for technology in this sector
  • Make recommendations on how to stimulate market growth to policy makers

The authors found 19 companies who met the report criteria – “far fewer than in previous reports and less than we expected,” said Cristina. Some had created multiple products, however.  Of the 25 products assessed, six were platforms, five were Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and 14 were apps. “Most companies developed apps and consumer technologies for use in the home, suggesting this is an early stage and underdeveloped market, and we expect that the types of technology in development will diversify as the market matures,” she added.

Cristina noted that there are still a lot of gaps in technologies being developed, and pointed to the importance of user-led development and advocacy groups. Carers and those in support roles are “often enablers or barriers to technology access”, she added, and a “widespread digital upskilling programme” would be beneficial, particularly if it encourages independent technology use by the user.

Covid shook the world 

Covid shook the world “the world to its core” because it “forced everyone to go digital,” Luis noted. As a result, many people with learning disabilities had a double disadvantage during the pandemic, said Tracey: they were lonely and isolated but also didn’t have the skills “to be able to access and understand that technology to remove that loneliness.”

Despite the benefits that technology can offer, many people still see learning disability technology as a “niche space,” Luis said. The oft-cited figure that 20% of the population has a disability does not include hidden disabilities, people who are situationally disabled, or the ageing population: “It’s a very difficult thing to show people the value that’s there when people don’t know that it actually exists. So what we try and do is highlight the benefits and the impact it can make, and show them how big that space is.”

Some users are tech savvy while others have profound disabilities

Another difficulty discussed was that of funding. Tracey noted that most of Mencap’s care and support is provided through local authority contracts, which often ask a question about what assistive technology is needed. However, she said, it’s not always clear what type of technology users want or need, particularly as users with learning disability form a broad spectrum. Some are very “tech savvy” while others have “profound and multiple learning disabilities” and need “extremely specialised technology to improve their quality of life to help them communicate.”

That wide range of abilities is one of the barriers, she said: “Often tech companies want to try and solve a problem, and they need [instead] to start looking at what outcome they want to achieve for the person. Once that happens, and you can see the positive outcomes that can be drawn, perhaps funding will be shown from government.”

Panellists agreed that user input into development is essential. “CityMaaS spend a long time doing research and we always involve the end users in our development process, because we have to remember that our understanding of a disability is very different to that of the person actually experiencing it,” Luis said. “And when we don’t allow them to give their input, we’re doomed to fail.”

Some of the technology now aimed at people with learning disabilities has been adapted from technology aimed at older people. This isn’t always suitable, Tracey said: “Sometimes technology for the elderly doesn’t transfer easily because people who are young, say, 23, 24, 30s, don’t want to be using a lifeline that their grandmother uses, they want something that is more age-appropriate for them.”

Younger people need technology for developing skills

Tracey also noted, however, that a lot of people with learning disabilities are now living longer and growing older: “There is also the complexity of having a learning disability and being elderly, and that is a very different situation to being able-bodied and able to function in an average way and becoming elderly. The technology younger people need with a learning disability is more around developing skills, so it feels very much like they finish school and education, and technology disappears off their landscape completely.”

The learning disability space is “so diverse”, Luis argued, that “people don’t know where to start”. Collaboration is key to future success: “while some of us are competitors in this space, it’s very important to look at ways we can work together and complement each other because one organisation cannot do everything, and there are things we can learn from each other that will allow us to cater for this community far better than we ever imagined.”