Dan Parton cutAssistive technology has the potential to help many people with learning disabilities to live more independently – yet, for some, the opportunities to access the support it can offer  are restricted, and this has to change.

It is an inspiring story. Lesley Arnold, who has learning disabilities, had always lived with other people but dreamt of having her own home. However, the support she required had previously meant she had to live in supported-living accommodation.

But, with the help of service provider Hft, and some clever bits of assistive technology, Lesley is now living in her own flat, on her own and thriving. 

The technology used, which includes a panic button, temperature sensors and speed dial phones, may seem relatively simple, but it has enabled Lesley to reduce the level of support she requires and live safely on her own.

This shows what assistive technology can do. There are plenty of other examples of how it can make a difference for people with learning disabilities, whether their difficulties are relatively mild or more profound. From powered wheelchairs to communication devices to simple alarms, they can all help people with learning disabilities to live their lives more as they would wish.

So it is disappointing that in some parts of the country, many people with learning disabilities still struggle to access assistive technology. Data is sketchy, but from what I have heard and read, some areas have clearly embraced its potential more than others.

The reason for this is often relatively simple: lack of investment. Some assistive technology is viewed as expensive, and it can be, if you look at it purely in terms of financial outlay. But, if you factor in things such as the way it can reduce the amount of physical support someone needs, initial expenditure can be converted into savings. But more than that, assistive technology can improve the quality of someone’s life, which has more value that can be expressed monetarily.

But there is a balance to be struck with this. Assistive technology has been viewed in some quarters more as a cost-saving measure. Indeed, as the Princess Royal pointed out in a speech at a conference organised by Hft in Liverpool last week, interest in technology has increased since the recession began in 2008. 

To simply view assistive technology in this light misses the point: such technology only assists if it is right for the person or people involved. To quote the Princess Royal “We know that savings be made using PT [personalised technology] but we have to make sure that it is led by the values of choice, independence, dignity and control.”

At its best, the right technology can save money and provide better outcomes for people with learning disabilities, as Choice Support proved last year. Its project, which replaced waking night staff with sleep-in staff and assistive technology in services to 26 people with learning disabilities resulted in better outcomes for people using the service, as well as saving the local authority £250,000.

That is the key: it has to be right for the individual – there is no point providing assistive technology if service users cannot work it properly, for instance. Assistive technology should be offered as an option – some people may not want it and prefer to be supported by people, and that preference has to be respected.

But as the technology improves, the more it can do to help people with learning disabilities to lead more independent lives, and potentially produce cost savings. So, local authorities and service providers have to ask the question: can they afford not to invest more in assistive technology?