UCL News


UCL East: Minister for Disabled People opens transformative assistive technology research lab

2 December 2022

UCL’s Global Disability Innovation Hub (UCL GDI Hub) has officially opened on the university’s new UCL East campus. The hub will provide the facilities for partnership-working and aims to produce new technologies, designs and processes to support disabled individuals in society.

Professor Cathy Holloway, Academic Director UCL GDI Hub Tom Pursglove MP, Minister for Disabled People Vicki Austin, CEO UCL GDI Hub CIC Professor Paola Lettieri, Pro-Provost UCL East  Anna Scott-Marshall, from British Paralympic Association

The UK’s Minister for Disabled People, Tom Pursglove, has opened a new UCL research lab to accelerate innovation in disability science and technology. The lab is at the heart of the university’s new UCL East campus on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford in east London.

UCL’s Global Disability Innovation Hub (UCL GDI Hub) is the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s first Global Collaborating Centre on Assistive Technology (AT). The new facility will supercharge UCL GDI Hub’s work in the UK and internationally to create a fairer world for the estimated 1.2 billion people with disabilities.

Visiting UCL’s GDI Hub, ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 Dec), the Minister heard from staff, researchers, students, Paralympic medallist swimmers Susie Rodgers MBE and Grace Harvey and emerging disabled leaders. Together they demonstrated the partnership-working and collaborative power of UCL’s GDI Hub to co-create new technologies, manufacturing processes, experiences and ways of working to drive more inclusive societies.

Declaring the UCL GDI Hub research lab officially open, the Minister highlighted UCL’s leading role in creating a more inclusive world through its research into the design of and access to assistive technology. Tom Pursglove also confirmed that UCL’s GDI Hub has been awarded the UK Country Capacity Assessment (CCA), a programme of work exploring the best ways to finance, procure and provide assistive technology in the UK to ensure maximum impact for the greatest number of people.

The UK CCA will draw on the work of the UK Aid funded and UCL GDI Hub led AT2030 initiative, which is testing what works around globally to improve access to life-changing assistive technology. The Minister met with and congratulated the team delivering the Assessment, led by UCL GDI Hub with Scope, Disability Rights UK (DRUK), British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and Opinium.

During a tour of the multi-purpose, hi-tech space, Tom Pursglove was shown a haptics demo of a low-cost tactile device for blind and partially sighted people to engage in STEM education called Tacilia, created at UCL. 

The Minister then saw a preview of the next generational Global Disability Innovators Map, which plots the growth of the sector around the world to encourage investments. This has been co-designed as part of the AT2030 programme.

Next stop was a lecture for students on UCL’s MSc Disability Design and Innovation programme, which is run with Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park legacy partners Loughborough London and UAL’s London College of Fashion. 

The students were learning about entrepreneurship with Dr Daniel Hajas, UCL GDI’s Innovation Manager, and hearing from social entrepreneur and ex-Student Kate Mattick, about her recent crowd funder to further her design. The Minister also met activist and entrepreneur Richard Amm, who recently graduated from the course with a Distinction after winning a Snowdon Masters Scholarship, run by UCL’s GDI Hub with the Snowdon Trust.

The Minister then visited the London Aquatics Centre next to the UCL East campus. There he heard from London Legacy Development Corporation about the legacy and regeneration of the area, along with representatives from the British Paralympic Association and UK Sport.

UCL GDI Hub was born out of the momentum created for disability innovation by the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and is one of several cutting-edge research centres that will be based at UCL’s new campus on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened its first building, One Pool Street, this autumn.

UCL East is opening across two sites, with the first phase of the new campus due to complete by autumn 2023. This is the biggest development in UCL’s nearly 200-year history, marking a new chapter in its disruptive thinking and a key moment in the development of East Bank, London’s new culture, innovation and learning quarter on the Park.

East Bank, backed by the Mayor of London, is also part of the London 2012 Olympic legacy and will see UCL, the V&A, the BBC, Sadler’s Wells and UAL’s London College of Fashion creating an estimated 2,500 jobs and bringing 10,000 students and £1.5 billion in economic benefits to the area. 

UCL and UAL’s London College of Fashion are also founding members of the SHIFT inclusive innovation district, working with businesses and organisations on and around the Park.

UK Minister for Disabled People, Tom Pursglove, said:

“It was fantastic to open the GDI Hub research lab, which I see as being front and centre of the UK’s ambition to drive forward innovation in assistive technology. I was delighted to see the global difference that the work the team is doing here has made and will no doubt continue to make both here in the UK, and on the global stage, in the future.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this UCL lab will be an engine room of activity and innovation and I look forward to understanding how this inspiring group of people tackle the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”

UCL GDI Hub co-founder and Academic Director, Professor Cathy Holloway, said:

“There are over a billion people around the world that require assistive technology. This lab will increase our capacity to build the data and evidence to demonstrate to governments around the world the value of that technology. We all like to think that we are rational beings, driven entirely by evidence, but there’s a psychological side to making the case for assistive tech. That’s why we have brought together computer science and technology with psychology to help make the case, when critical budget decisions have to be made, for investing in assistive tech, and thereby helping to eliminate stigma and drive inclusive policies to promote empowerment.”

Pro-Provost UCL East, Professor Paola Lettieri FREng, said:

“Our new UCL East campus has been designed to find solutions to the many challenges facing people and the planet, with justice and equality underpinning our approach to innovation. Our ground-breaking research centres are committed to supporting collaboration across disciplines and throughout communities, working locally in east London to impact around the world. We are proud to be home to UCL’s GDI Hub and excited by the potential that this new research lab brings for rapid advancements in assistive technology.”

Paralympian champion swimmer Susie Rodgers MBE said:

“The whole point about legacy is the power to change lives and we need to improve technology to enable people around the world to lead independent lives of their choosing. My experiences as a Paralympian was phenomenal, but it’s about equality and the importance of leaving no one behind. This UCL lab can also contribute to issues like climate change and the broader value of assistive technology to enable disabled people to take part in important conversations. For me, that is the central point of the power of technology that facilities like this can do so much to support.”

Grace Harvey, Paralympian silver medallist, and a member of GDI Hub’s disabled leaders network after gaining a Snowdon Masters Scholarship, said:

“I am a proud disabled person and there are so many things that I have accomplished in my life with my disability and not despite it. I am also a firm believer that knowledge is power, but in reality there are so many barriers in acquiring that knowledge and having access to it. I faced so many hurdles in accessing higher education. If it weren’t for the Snowdon Masters Scholarship through GDI Hub and the Snowdon Trust, I would not have been able to continue my academic journey, a master’s in public dental health. Not enough elite sports men and women have a back-up plan or go into education either. This scholarship made that possible for me.