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How disruptive technology is shaping access

It is not hard to see that the accessible and assistive technology industry is undergoing a period of intense change, but perhaps the impact of that change is only beginning to be apparent.

Traditional products and their developers are facing an uncertain outlook as they feel the impact of change upon both design and business models.

At the same time the context within which accessible technology is delivered is rapidly evolving, driven by shifts in technology, policy, aspirations of the market and a public funding crisis leading to widespread reduction in spending.

These influences have created an environment that demands innovation in the field of access for people with a disability. No sector is immune to this, and recent history shows us that business, public services and lifestyle have all been impacted by disruptive technologies.

Disruptive technology elsewhere

Other industries that have been – and continue to be – disrupted include entertainment, transport and marketing. These industries have experienced the impact of a revolution and the field of accessible and assistive technology is seeing the first stirrings of similar changes.

There can be little doubt that current approaches to both business and lifestyle are facing a transformation as a result of the advent of disruptive technologies.

Disruptive technologies displace established technologies and shake up an industry, or offer a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.  In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen (1997) defined new technology into two categories: sustaining and disruptive.

Sustaining technology is founded upon incremental change to a proven or established technology. Whereas disruptive technology may seek to “wipe the slate clean”, offering an entirely new means of fulfilling a need. Any review of assistive technology over the past ten years can see an underlying tendency towards disruptive technology.

In the past large assistive technology organisations or companies favoured sustaining technologies. With a knowledge of what has proven effective, and with their customer feedback, they have a tendency to evolve current technology by adding features or functionality.

As a result, they struggle to capitalise on the benefits of disruptive technologies, seeking to replicate such technologies only after their market and customer base has been disrupted, which places the company at risk.

Such companies may dismiss the value of a disruptive technology, because it does not match their previous experience. This has a significant impact as such technology matures, gaining market share and threatening the existing core business.

Today, we are seeing the first wave of company mergers and closures in the field of accessible technology, leading to the withdrawal from the market of products that have provided support to people with a disability in the past.

The advent and pervasiveness of mobile and portable technologies is stimulating new ways of meeting the needs of users. The impact of this is already most keenly felt in the areas of communication aids, low vision aids and literacy support.

By learning from this experience we can identify indicators that suggest the extent to which any segment of the market for assistive technology or product is vulnerable to disruption, and plan accordingly. These might include:

  1. Changing market expectations of devices
  2. Changing technology trends
  3. Change to address cost imperatives
  4. Potential community engagement

Companies and suppliers of access services and products who are capable of anticipating how disruptive technology will change the industry and its products will be those that emerge successfully in the future.

To find out about the latest developments in assistive technology and what the future holds why not come to my seminar at ATEC Sheffield 2016? Visit for further information and to book tickets.

David Banes is Director of David Banes Access and Inclusion Services and was formerly CEO, at Mada the Qatar Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center based in Doha where he has been based worked in Doha for the past six years. He was responsible for developing services to ensure that people with a disability in Qatar are digitally included, and is currently focused on the broad policy framework required to ensure and sustain this.