Disability advocates say we need Assistive Technology for All
1 June 2021 at 4:26 pm
“To deny people the ability to access vital equipment can be extremely detrimental to their independence, health and wellbeing”
Millions of older Australians with disability who are not eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme are struggling to access vital assistive technology such as wheelchairs and ramps, prompting advocates to call for a national program.
While some people are entitled to fully-funded assistive technology under the NDIS, the scheme only covers around 10 per cent of the disability community and excludes those aged over 65.
The Council on the Ageing Victoria is now spearheading a new Assistive Technology for All (ATFA) campaign – in conjunction with other groups including Vision Australia, MS Australia, and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations.
Assistive technology includes not only wheelchairs and ramps, but also equipment such as book page turners, prosthetic limbs, voice dictation software and electronic communication devices.
This technology can help with many everyday tasks for older Australians, such as using magnifiers to read bills and medication labels, or having a talking microwave to help prepare food.
ATFA campaign coordinator Lauren Henley said all vulnerable older Australians deserved access to this equipment.
“To deny people the ability to access vital equipment can be extremely detrimental to their independence, health and wellbeing,” Henley said.
“We’re talking about equipment and technology that enhances every aspect of peoples’ lives.
“Equipment that allows them to complete daily tasks that many people would take for granted, equipment that allows people to remain connected with friends, family and the wider community.”
ATFA is calling for the Australian government to establish a national assistive technology program for people with disability excluded from the NDIS.
Greater focus needed on rural areas
Pro Bono News spoke with 91-year-old Brenda Murray, who is legally blind and lives in regional Victoria.
Murray unexpectedly and suddenly lost her vision in 2006 and is a strong advocate for greater assistive technology access for older Australians.
“It’s essential for everyone whether they’re sighted, vision-impaired or blind, because we live in the age of technology and so much is done online,” Murray said.
“Without [assistive technology] everyday operations become pretty difficult, particularly since COVID when we’re more isolated.”
Murray agrees there is a need for a national assistive technology program for older Australians with disability.
But she also believes this group needs greater help learning to use technology, particularly in rural areas where there are less services available.
She said there should be more opportunities for older people to use the network of community groups in their area to get support.
“Most older people are now on aged care packages and of course various organisations can charge them via their package for services,” she said.
“But I think we’ve got to look beyond this. In rural areas particularly, there are very wide networks and organisations like church groups and elderly citizens’ groups that have facilities we could use.
“This will cut down the costs and give people the opportunity to have a hands-on experience of technology not just as a one off, but they can go back for a series of lessons.”
Murray said Australia needed to “reorganise our thinking and acting towards our older adults”.
“We have to realise they don’t just sit in the rocking chair and watch TV, we’re a very mentally active group of people,” she said.
“They’ve got a lifetime of experience, a wealth of knowledge, and by helping them to embrace technology you’re going to add value in the community because those people can share their life experience and their wisdom.”
Calls for national assistive technology scheme
ATFA are also pushing for action on the aged care royal commission’s recommendations – four of which pertained to greater access to assistive technology.
The commission called on the government to implement an assistive technology category within the aged care program to promote independence in daily living tasks and reduce safety risks at home.
It said people with disability should receive equitable daily living supports regardless of their age without having to pay for it themselves.
Chris Edwards, Vision Australia manager of government relations and advocacy, said it was extremely disappointing the recent federal budget did not address these recommendations.
He said assistive technology is often what allows blind or low vision people to live active, safe and independent lives.
“The NDIS provides its participants with support to access vital equipment, but people who aren’t eligible for the scheme must be supported as well,” Edwards said.
“Something like a magnifier can make a significant difference to the quality of life of people who are blind or have low vision and we can’t understand why they should be denied support to access that sort of equipment because they don’t meet NDIS eligibility requirements.”