4.3.3 Supporting a sustainable and viable AT eco-system
In order for persons with disabilities to access appropriate assistive technology (AT), there must be a vibrant and sustainable AT ecosystem. Key components of such an AT eco-system include:
- An AT industry that provides affordable and usable AT equipment to users;
- An AT assessment, delivery and support system that is part of existing community-based rehabilitation services -- and that links in with the local school system to provide support to teachers and students;
- A research community to explore the effectiveness of current AT delivery systems, the development of new and improved ATs, and the potential of new technological developments;and
- Government funding and support for AT.
Developing countries have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of developed countries which, in-spite of relatively high levels of resources, still struggle in many cases to meet the AT needs of persons with disabilities.
Research in Europe has shown that many AT companies develop as the result of a small, local demand.125 For example, the first line of Siemens Hearing Instruments was initially meant for employees of that company and their family members. Thus, small AT companies develop based on solving a need locally, and often do not have a business plan for rapid scalability.
A further issue is market fragmentation. Research supported by the European Commission has found that “the degree of fragmentation for AT ICT in general is high, driven largely by the unique, national-level or regional-level service delivery systems that minimize the ability for companies to realize significant economies of scale.” The fragmentation caused by different national systems and policies makes an already limited market for accessibility products even smaller. A further issue is that the type of solution required may vary from country to country – according to different languages, for example. The result of this fragmentation in the AT industry in Europe is that:
- End-users have reduced choices of solutions;
- Companies have a reduced market size, which impacts sales and profits; and
- The solutions may suffer from poor design, reliability and robustness, due to a lack of ongoing research and development.
Market fragmentation is not only an issue for the viability and future development of a robust and profitable AT industry, it impacts on the choice, quality and affordability of solutions available to end-users within a region.
One solution being proffered in the European context is the development of an organization to represent and support the AT ICT industry through networking between stakeholders, including end-users and service providers such as educational authorities. These partners would exchange knowledge on marketing and technical information. Policy-makers in developing countries may wish to encourage such networks to foster development of an in-country AT industry. The network could be developed at a national level or as part of an international network between countries.
Examples of industry associations for AT include: