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Deafblindness: Emerging Technologies

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the possibilities of emerging technologies to create new opportunities for people who are deafblind.

The Government are continually reviewing and assessing the possibilities afforded by new and emerging technologies, particularly to support disabled people or anyone with specific access requirements. We believe we can achieve this by promoting bold discoveries, growing the economy, and being at the cutting edge of assistive and accessible technology—ATech. Our ambition is to make the UK the most accessible place in the world to live and work with technology.

My Lords, today is Helen Keller’s birthday. Born in 1880, she was both deaf and blind, and was one of the most well-known deafblind people in history, as she campaigned tirelessly. That is why this week, the week of her birthday, is when Deafblind Awareness Week takes place.

I thank the Minister for his reply. There are more than 450,000 deafblind people in the UK, and Sense predicts that, by 2030, that number will increase to more than 600,000. Will the Government commit to increasing their work with major technology companies such as Google, which is actively co-creating assistive technology with and for people with complex disabilities? In particular, will the Government support those people with complex disabilities who are looking for work with the equipment that they need by the introduction of a fund to ensure that adequate assistive technology is available in all jobcentres?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising her Question this week, which is, of course, Deafblind Awareness Week. I take this opportunity to pass my very best wishes to those who suffer from the affliction and those who work with them.

The Government are working with providers of technology of all different sizes in this space. The noble Baroness referred to Google’s new centre for technology for disabled people, which highlights its recognition that the UK is the right place for it to operate in this market. I could point to a number of fascinating new innovations by smaller organisations, but I will restrict myself to just one: BrightSign has created a life-changing AI-based smart glove, giving voice to the voiceless by enabling sign language users to communicate without an interpreter.

My Lords, the Minister rightly identified that there are many excellent technologies using smartphones and tablets that are designed to help those who are deafblind achieve greater independence. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, on raising this Question during Deafblind Awareness Week. What co-ordination role does the new department, DSIT, have in this respect—there are many departments, and a couple have been mentioned already—and what resources does it have to help with training and information on these vital technologies?

As the noble Lord rightly points out, identifying the appropriate technologies by scanning the horizon for those that will be of most impact and use is, and must be, a cross-governmental matter. I take every opportunity to urge my fellow Ministers to fight the good fight in this respect. DSIT’s role is as the provider and exemplar of technology use to all of government and the public sector, and indeed all of the UK, but all government departments recognise their responsibility to continuously identify ways to use technology and to make technology in the United Kingdom as accessible as it can possibly be.

My Lords, I support the points that the noble Baroness made and note the staggering figure of 450,000. Would it be possible for the Minister to extend the review to include work undertaken at universities? There may well be scope for co-ordinating that work to help not only them and deafblind people but those in the commercial sector who are looking for new ideas.

DSIT works extensively across universities on this and other programmes. In addition, the Government commission a range of research, particularly in the area of deafblindness, not least, for instance, into the procurement of hearing aids by the NHS.

My Lords, we on our Benches very much welcome the research and development that is taking place, and the pretty unprecedented pace at which new technologies become available. However, this poses a challenge, not just for government departments, charities and individuals but for wider society. To pursue the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, I would like to pin the Minister down a bit more on what he sees as his department’s role, and that of the Department of Health and Social Care, in accrediting and procuring these emerging technologies. He seems to suggest that departments should just get on and do it themselves, without any plan or strategy. That cannot be right.

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I certainly hope my remarks did not come across as me asking other ministries to merely improvise in this space. DSIT can contribute in three very important ways under the structure of the science and technology framework, the ambition of which is to make us a science and tech superpower by 2030. We can make three distinction contributions: first, by growing the economy overall through the use of science and technology; secondly, by driving innovation in all areas; and, thirdly, and most pertinently to this Question, by ensuring that the technology developed in this space is always as inclusive and accessible as it can possibly be.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Ewing Foundation for deaf children. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the progress of most children with sensory disabilities has been excellent, mainly due to dedicated teachers and modern electronics, such as cochlear implants, hearing aids and sound fields? However, these have to be maintained. Would it be a good idea for schools regularly to test their electronic equipment provided for the pupils to make sure it is working?

I thank my noble friend for the question and pay tribute to his ongoing work in this space. Supporting deaf children through the use of audiological equipment involves a range of government agencies, including the NHS, schools and local authorities’ social care teams. If a child is deaf, NHS audiology services work with multidisciplinary teams, which include teachers for the deaf, paediatricians, speech and language therapists, and cochlear implant teams, as well as the parents and guardians, and between them they agree individual management plans. Children who use audiological equipment based on this plan should of course be offered regular appointments with their audiology team to check their hearing and ears and to ensure that their audiological equipment is working and adjusted as necessary.

My Lords, the Minister is right in recognising that smaller companies are developing technologies for the deafblind, without using the internet, combining spectacles and hearing aids. The important point is that, when these technologies reach maturity, they are available to people who are deafblind. Digital technologies for the deaf, for instance, are currently not available on the NHS and are quite expensive on the private market. We must make sure they are available on the NHS when these technologies mature.

I suppose the structural problem overall is that those who find themselves disabled, with whatever disability, are in a very small group, and the smaller the group, the more difficult it is for manufacturers of equipment to provide for them in a commercially viable way. The Government have a number of levers they can pull in this space: first, by commissioning research directly; secondly, by the public sector procurement programme—we spend on average £1.5 billion every year on procuring ATech; and, finally, by working with partner organisations, such as UKRI and Innovate UK, to seed and fund emerging technology in the ATech space.

Is the Minister aware that the excellent “Strictly Come Dancing” winner, Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is herself deaf, has proposed that BSL lessons be given to everyone freely? What is the Government’s response?

I very much enjoyed the interview on the radio today to which the noble Lord refers. The British Sign Language Advisory Board has been established to help advise the Government on the implementation of the British Sign Language Act 2022, which legally recognises BSL as a language of England, Wales and Scotland. It is important to note here that the BSL board has a reserved place for a deafblind person, and an additional member of the board is deaf- blind. We look forward to receiving and acting on its advice in this space.