Introducing Assistive Technologies: What We’ve Learned, And How You Can Do It Better

By Luke Joy-Smith, Project Director, Dimensions (www.dimensions-uk.org)

“It can be very hard to interpret Alice’s emotions. Now that she has the Grid Pad, she can communicate anger, boredom and other feelings. Her support has got so much better as a result…”

Start talking to people about the role of technology in care and I bet you a bitcoin that half of them assume you’re talking about bed sensors. The other half think you’re replacing carers with robots. An enlightened few might ask if the tech is personalised.

Tech has the potential to go so much further. Dimensions has been rolling out tech to the people we support with learning disabilities and autism, with some especially exciting examples of how this has worked in practice in Somerset. We have identified some great practice, but strongly believe that it’s also important to share the pitfalls we’ve stumbled across so that others can avoid them.

“Dimensions gave me a laptop at the start of the pandemic and arranged a load of different groups. I joined the Music one and a Friendship Group too – I’ve got friends as far away as Newcastle now! There’s nothing worse than being isolated and I’m really grateful to those who have helped make the groups happen.” Adam

“Gwyneth’s new talking photo album, voiced by her mum, is helping her protect vital family memories as her dementia progresses.”

Alice, Adam and Gwyneth’s experiences are great. Of course, it is never as simple as handing out tablets and laptops. It can be easy to go out and buy technology and just not use it. No-one needs a very expensive doorstop. So why is this?

There’s a myriad of challenges. Who trains the colleagues who will be supporting the person to use it? Who supplies the broadband and pays for the data? What happens if something goes wrong? How do we keep people safe? Which apps are safe and which are not, and who determines this?
Here is what we’ve learned:

No supply without demand.

Give tech to people that haven’t asked for it and you may as well give them a brick. I’m sure there’s a piece of technology sitting in someone’s home right now that I fear may be gathering dust.

Encourage support colleagues to ‘imagine better.’

Remember that many colleagues may be digitally excluded, hesitant or unaware themselves. That’s ok. Meet them on their terms. You might start by all looking at brochures together – there’s some brilliant sources of ideas out there, such as Living Made Easy (www.livingmadeeasy.org.uk) , but do your own research too. Involve the person, their family, their housemates, colleagues, social workers… good ideas can come from anywhere
Know your digital champions.

At the same time, remember that some colleagues may be digital natives, fanatical about great tech solutions. Know who they are and don’t be afraid to call them your digital champions. If you can, give them some tech to play with. We tried that with a ‘table top tablet’ which is proving very popular with some of the people we support in Somerset.

Start with a person’s support plan.

At Dimensions we now have a dedicated part of a person’s support plan called ’My Technology,’ alongside a series of prompt questions. If something is in the support plan, it is co-produced, co-demanded and therefore much more likely to happen. Tech can ease most problems; issues around communications, mobility, memory, relationships and more can all be looked at through a tech lens.

Take some risks.

Successful innovators break a few things along the way and that’s ok. Of course, there’s a crucial difference between stepping outside the lines and going completely rogue…

Provide help.

There are loads of organisations out there that can help with getting started, online safety, and troubleshooting when things go wrong. AbilityNet (www.abilitynet.org.uk) and the Good Things Foundation (www.goodthingsfoundation.org) are both brilliant. Use them.

Know what’s going on in your local authority area.

In Somerset, for example, we’ve been able to join a pilot programme of digital needs assessments from Millbrook (www.millbrookhealthcare.co.uk/pages/self-assessment) which we expect to lead to an acceleration of technological solutions for the people we support and thus better support.

Know what funding is available.

Dimensions helped shape and then successfully applied for funding for a couple of hundred tablets with wraparound data and support through the government’s Digital Lifeline Fund. That funding meant that everyone we support in England who wants a device, now has one. See more here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N61NJS3Yf60

Know what communications apps work best.

Dimensions has produced a free guide on this, which you can download at  https://dimensions-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/Lets-talk-about-communication-2021.pdf

Make space for the conversation.

Tech can be a force for so much good in people’s lives. Being too busy to talk about it is simply not good enough.

New challenges are cropping up all the time. Having encouraged the people we support to use Dimensions’ broadband to help them communicate with family and friends through the pandemic, for example, we are increasingly finding that their new-found desire to watch 4k films is taking up the bandwidth needed for our colleagues to do their jobs. That’s resulting in some tricky conversations!

In this article have focused on connected devices simply because there are fewer hurdles to overcome with other tech. Talking photo albums, magic carpets, kitchen accessories, gardening aids and so on are all easy to set up and use. So go on – what are you waiting for?

* All names have been changed

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