WHO and UNICEF global assistive technology report image

An important report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has unveiled a stark disparity between the number of people that need assistive products globally and the number of people who access these “life-changing” products.

The 140-page document – ‘Global report on assistive technology’ – reveals that while more than 2.5 billion elderly or disabled people need one or more assistive products, nearly one billion of them are denied access. This is particularly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, where access can be as low as three percent of the need for these products, WHO and UNICEF warn.

The guide defines assistive technology as: “Assistive technology is an umbrella term for assistive products and their related systems and services. Assistive technology enables and promotes the inclusion, participation and engagement of persons with disabilities, ageing populations and people living with chronic conditions in the family, community and all areas of society, including the political, economic and social spheres.”

Examples of assistive technologies include wheelchairs, prostheses, communication aids, grab rails, postural support equipment, crutches, and remote monitoring devices.

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “Assistive technology is a life changer – it opens the door to education for children with impairments, employment and social interaction for adults living with disabilities, and an independent life of dignity for older persons.

“Denying people access to these life-changing tools is not only an infringement of human rights, it’s economically shortsighted. We call on all countries to fund and prioritise access to assistive technology and give everyone a chance to live up to their potential.”

The report presents evidence for the first time on the global need for, and access to, assistive products and provides a series of recommendations to expand availability and access, raise awareness of the need, and implement inclusion policies to improve the lives of millions of people.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell added: “Nearly 240 million children have disabilities. Denying children the right to the products they need to thrive doesn’t only harm individual children, it deprives families and their communities of everything they could contribute if their needs were met.

“Without access to assistive technology, children with disabilities will continue to miss out on their education, continue to be at a greater risk of child labour and continue to be subjected to stigma and discrimination, undermining their confidence and wellbeing.”

The report notes that the number of people in need of one or more assistive products is likely to rise to 3.5 billion by 2050, due to populations ageing and the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases rising across the world.

It also highlights the vast gap in access between low- and high-income countries. An analysis of 35 countries reveals that access varies from three percent in poorer nations to 90 percent in wealthy countries.

Affordability is a major barrier to access, the report underlines. Around two-thirds of people with assistive products reported out-of-pocket payments for them. Others reported relying on family and friends to financially support their needs.

A survey of 70 countries featured in the report found large gaps in service provision and trained workforce for assistive technology, especially in the domains of cognition, communication and self-care. Previous surveys published by WHO note a lack of awareness and unaffordable prices, lack of services, inadequate product quality, range and quantity, and procurement and supply chain challenges as key barriers.

Drawing on the findings from the report and taking into account the positive impact of assistive technologies on people’s quality of life, well-being and independence, WHO and UNICEF make recommendations for concrete action to improve access, including:

  1. Improve access within education, health and social care systems – Importantly, the report the need for integration across different sectors, which aligns with the UK Government’s recent whitepaper on breaking down barriers and pooling budgets across health and social care
  2. Ensure availability, safety, effectiveness and affordability of assistive products – This includes strengthening necessary regulatory systems and standards
  3. Enlarge, diversify and improve workforce capacity – Ensure assistive technology professionals are adequately trained on products, and that there is enough resource to meet demands
  4. Actively involve users of assistive technology and their families – Assistive technology products and services should be co-designed with users and their families
  5. Increase public awareness and combat stigma – Key stakeholders, including policymakers and the general public, should be aware of the need for, and benefit of, assistive technologies. Better product design could also help reduce stigma. Recently, an inventor designed discrete and ‘non-stigmatising’ smart socks to monitor important signs in the wearer, while looking like an everyday piece of clothing
  6. Invest in data and evidence-based policy – Every country should have periodical population-based data on the need and demand for, and supply of assistive technology to understand the gaps and trends, in order to develop evidence-based strategies, policies and comprehensive programmes
  7. Invest in research, innovation, and an enabling ecosystem – Investment in research innovation is required to develop new products and services to meet the rising global demand for assistive products
  8. Develop and invest in enabling environments – Creating enabling environments will optimise the purpose of assistive technology: to enable people to live independently and safely with dignity, participating fully in all aspects of life
  9. Include assistive technology in humanitarian responses – This increases benefits to potential users to restore productivity and dignity, and at the same time, enhances community ownership and inclusion
  10. Provide technical and economic assistance through international cooperation to support national efforts – International cooperation can improve access to assistive technology on a global scale, including in areas like policies, fair pricing, procurement, supply and service provision

Read WHO and UNICEF’s joint report in full here.

In 2021, WHO launched guidance, primarily aimed at procurement teams, that includes specifications for 26 prioritised assistive products and describes the minimum quality requirements for manufacturing.

The guide covers information about mobility, hearing, vision, communication, cognition and self-care. The products range from rollators, hearing aids and portable ramps through to wheelchair seat cushions, walking frames and shower chairs.

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