Why assistive technology innovation needs transformation

Increased demand for assistive technologies combined with the maturity of core transformational technologies means there is an opportunity to transform the assistive technology innovation landscap

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By Cathy Holloway 26 January 2022

Globally only 10% of people who need assistive products and services have access to assistive technology (AT) – the devices we use to help overcome impairments such as not being able to walk, see or hear.  And this problem will get worse as there is increasing need for assistive technology due to an ageing population combined with people who acquire conditions earlier in life living longer. But need often does not translate into demand due to a lack of affordability of products and poor provision service infrastructure. This has to date thwarted good innovations from getting to market. However, the increased demand combined with the maturity of core transformational technologies means there is an opportunity to transform the assistive technology innovation landscape.

TIDAL will exploit advances in three areas to make this transformation happen:

  1. Digital Manufacturing Systems
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Sensors & Data

Digital manufacturing systems allow for local, user-driven adaptations to globally distributed designs. This means something designed by a UK company can be adapted to the local Indian context, or vice versa. TIDAL projects will cover the process from user needs, and design through to long-term clinical support and maintenance. They will include how we involve users and local production within each stage of the care pathway to create more robust and useable technologies. Early work in this area has shown that user involvement in the manufacture of a wheelchair has benefits which go beyond function: the new service promoted core values of agency, empowerment and self-expression [2].

Artificial Intelligence (AI) AI is already powering technologies for disabled people and according to the International Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI) the potential of AI to enhance AT and improve access to technology is advancing [1]. Examples include Microsoft’s Seeing AI, which uses computational vision to identify, interpret, and transform images and visual information into speech [3]; and Google’s Euphonia project which looks to transform equal access to voice activated technology by training a speech recognition model on thousands of samples of people with impaired speech [4]. Excitingly both these examples have spill over effects for mainstream technologies, for example, enhancing core real time transcription and services. Likewise, the way to scale these innovations may well be through more mainstream applications such as language translation applications.

Sensors & Data are becoming ubiquitous within our daily lives as costs reduce and processing power increases. This opens up the potential for changing how we derive data sets and give information back to users, clinicians and manufacturers. This could allow for improvements in  provision of services which react to the needs of the users, whilst giving manufacturers the information they need to drive improvements in design. 

TIDAL N+ will support early-stage research in these areas through a series of open research calls and network activities over the next 3 years.

We hope together we can reduce the time to market for novel AT by taking an open innovation approach which ensures all stakeholders – researchers, users, manufacturers, financers, service delivery partners and clinicians - are involved at the right time.

As this is only the beginning and it is a network, we welcome you to join our launch and also to reach out to us with suggestions of activities and partnerships.


AT2030. 2021. Powering Inclusion: AI and AT. The findings of an online expert roundtable | AT2030 Programme. Retrieved October 28, 2021

Giulia Barbareschi, Sibylle Daymond, Jake Honeywill, Aneesha Singh, Dominic Noble, Nancy N. Mbugua, Ian Harris, Victoria Austin, and Catherine Holloway. 2020. Value beyond function: analyzing the perception of wheelchair innovations in Kenya. In The 22nd International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS ’20), 1–14.

Seeing AI | Talking camera app for those with a visual impairment. Retrieved June 25, 2018 

Project Euphonia. Retrieved September 3, 2021