WHO Access to assistive technology during the COVID-19 Pandemic image

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a study that explores people’s access to assistive technology around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the pandemic disrupting just about every part of life, assistive technology services were also not exempt from being impacted during the COVID-19 crisis on a global scale. This, according to WHO, had “unintended consequences” for those who rely on assistive technologies.

Assistive products such as prosthetics, hearing aids, and communication devices require systems and services for their safe and effective provision, use and maintenance. However, the onset of COVID-19, declared a global pandemic in 2020, threatened the assistive technology ecosystem, WHO underlines.

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In 2021, WHO, in collaboration with Monash University Australia, Center for Inclusive Policy, HelpAge International, Liliane Foundation, Africa Disability Alliance, Kabul Orthopedic Organization, and Pacific Disability Forum, undertook a global study exploring the experiences of more than 140 people who use or provide assistive technologies worldwide to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and to inform better preparation and responses to future crises.

WHO’s research consists of three separate papers looking at different areas of assistive technology access during the pandemic. These are assistive technology provider experiences, roles of governments and society in fulfilling the social contract, and user access to assistive technology services and products.

To summarise the findings from all three papers and provide an overview of the global situation, WHO has published ‘Research Summary: Access to assistive technology during the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

The overview shows that assistive technology users were often not included in public health responses to COVID-19.

In addition, assistive technology was considered a non-essential service by some governments and had to close, resulting in lack of access for people to the assistive technology services they need, including assistance with maintenance and repair of their assistive products.

For example, in the UK, a letter in March 2020 from the UK Government was circulated to the heads of all NHS trusts, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), councils, and NHS England and NHS Improvement recommending that work deemed ‘medium and lower priority’ relating to wheelchairs, orthotics and prosthetics and equipment services for children and young people should be stopped to free up staff resources.

This decision was met with some criticism from Brian Donnelly, CEO of CECOPS, and Sarah Clayton, CEO of Simple Stuff Work, who described the decision as ‘alarming’ and ‘neglectful’. They warned of the severe knock-on impact this would have on both the assistive technology services themselves and the service users.

Furthermore, WHO’s research reveals that travel restrictions adopted to reduce the spread of COVID-19 increased the difficulty that people who need or use assistive products had in accessing assistive technology services. Evidence from surveys and interviews uncovered gaps in assistive technology service delivery, which had “significant impacts” on the quality of life of people who use assistive products.

The study further underlined that assistive technology providers were agile in their response, as were civil society organisations that rapidly adapted as policies and procedures changed.

WHO reinforces that recognising assistive technologies as “essential” products and services during a pandemic or health emergency and strengthening assistive technology services to improve preparedness for future pandemic responses are actions that can sustain and increase access to such technologies for those who need them.

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