On 25 May 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate in Grand Committee:

Lord Addington (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the use of assistive technology to support those with special educational needs.

Special educational needs (SEN) and disability often, but not always, overlap and interconnect. People can have special educational needs but no disability, while those with a disability may not have a special educational need. Some have both, which can mean they have complex needs. This briefing explores the challenges faced by individuals with a special educational need and/or disability (SEND) in the areas of education and employment and how assistive technology can be helpful.

1. What is assistive technology?

The UK government has defined assistive technology (AT) as “products or systems that support and help individuals with disabilities, restricted mobility or other impairments to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible”. Such devices can support individuals to improve or maintain their daily quality of life by easing or compensating for an injury or disability.

In 2018, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report that argued that AT can help people to do daily tasks, be more mobile and participate more fully in society and in employment. It also described the various types of AT:

AT comes in many different forms. It can be highly specialised and designed to overcome a specific impairment or difficulty, such as embossing machines that can produce hard copies of information in braille. It can also be built into phones, laptops and daily living gadgets. Apple’s iPhone, for example, comes with VoiceOver/“blind assist” mode (reading out words on the screen), FaceTime (allowing visual communication, such as British Sign Language), Switch Control (operating the phone without touch), and the ability to receive textphone calls without specialist hardware.

In addition, the committee noted that advances in technology had driven, and continued to drive, “cutting edge advances in AT”, with such technology also increasingly becoming integrated in mainstream devices. It argued that this helped to reduce costs and improve accessibility for disabled people.

2. Assistive technology in education

2.1 Who are SEND pupils and how is their learning affected?

The statutory SEND code of practice states that a child or young person has a SEND if they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special education provision to be made for them. A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if they have:

  • a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age; or
  • a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the same kind of facilities generally provided to others of the same age in mainstream schools or post-16 institutions.

The government reported in June 2022 that just under 1.5 million pupils in England had special educational needs.

SEND can affect a child or young person’s ability to learn. The National Audit Office has noted that pupils with SEND have diverse needs with different levels of severity. They may also have more than one type of need. The government has said that SEND can affect a pupil’s:

  • behaviour or ability to socialise
  • reading and writing
  • ability to understand things
  • concentration levels
  • physical ability

Several companies supply AT to support students with SEND. For example, the telecommunications company BT has considered how SEND can affect students. It has said that students with speech, language and communication needs will most likely have difficulty communicating with teachers and fellow students. These students may struggle with saying what they want to, understanding what is being said to them, or the social aspects of communication. Students with cognition and learning difficulties may need to learn at a slower pace than their peers, while those who have a sensory and/or physical disability may need specialist support and/or equipment to aid their learning. In addition, students may suffer from a wide range of social and emotional difficulties which can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. This can result in pupils becoming withdrawn or isolated, as well as displaying challenging and disruptive behaviour. In some cases, students may need to remove themselves to calm down, while others may need more intensive measures to help.

The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) has also reported that disabled people are less likely to attain further education (FE) or higher education (HE) qualifications. In 2021, the most common impairments reported by disabled students in FE and HE were cognitive or learning difficulties, particularly dyslexia, and mental health conditions. Disabled students are also less likely to progress to postgraduate education or highly skilled employment.

The schools inspectorate Ofsted has argued that the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on pupils with SEND. It said that a report which contained the findings of joint visits by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission showed the “cumulative effects of disruption caused by the pandemic on the health, learning and development of children with SEND”. These included missed and narrowed education, the absence of essential services such as physiotherapy or speech and language support, and long waiting times for assessment and treatment. It was also argued that the pandemic had exacerbated existing weaknesses in the SEND system as children were more likely to have been “out of sight” of services.

2.2 How can assistive technology help SEND pupils?

AT can be used to support pupils with SEND. BT has argued that it can improve the happiness and wellbeing of students and can also:

  • allow them to become more self-reliant and increase their sense of independence
  • help them to communicate with teachers and classmates and become more involved with lessons
  • boost their confidence and help them expand their comfort zone
  • help them master life skills which lead to a more successful transition into adulthood

BT has also said that while AT cannot eliminate learning difficulties, it can improve a student’s capabilities. In addition, it set out four broad areas of need which students may require support in, and which AT may be able to help with: communication and interaction; cognition and learning; social, emotion and mental health; and sensory and/or physical disabilities. Within these four areas, BT gave examples of how AT can help students. These included:

  • Text to speech software. This form of AT can be used for students who struggle with speech but are more capable of typing. It can also help to improve reading levels for students with mild cognition and learning difficulties who can benefit from hearing a word as it is being read. Interactive storybooks can also help students relate to the text.
  • Voice recognition and dictation software. This can support students with cognition and learning impairments to write. It can also help students who have sensory disabilities which affect their vision, such as blindness.
  • Personal devices and interactive whiteboards. Personal touch-screen devices like laptops and tablets, with big, clear on-screen keyboards and word prediction software can help students to type. Interactive whiteboards and tablets can also help by giving students visuals to relate to words. They also assist students who struggle to understand the meaning behind words and who find it difficult to explain themselves clearly as well as those whose first language is not English.

However, concerns have been raised about students’ access to AT. For example, in 2020 the Department for Education published a rapid literature review on AT in education which said that AT is an “under-utilised intervention”.

2.3 What has the government said recently on assistive technology in education?

The government was recently asked a written question on its plans to ensure that all schools have access to AT for SEND students who would benefit from it. Responding, Baroness Barran, minister for the school system and student finance, highlighted that all schools have duties under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments, including the provision of auxiliary aids and services for disabled children, to prevent them from being put at a substantial disadvantage. Baroness Barran also noted that where a pupil has an education, health and care plan, schools must work with the local authority to ensure that all relevant duties under the Children and Families Act 2014 are met, including securing special education provision, which may include the provision of AT.

On access to AT, Baroness Barran said that children and young people with special education needs have more access “following investment in remote education and accessibility features which can reduce or remove barriers to learning”. Commenting further, she said that the government had expanded training to increase school staff’s awareness of AT, in particular the technology that is already available and can be easily obtained, such as text-to-speech tools. Looking forward, Baroness Barran said that impact data from this programme would provide “a fuller picture of how training can support the wider continuous professional development of learners with SEN”.

In response to a further written question, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing Claire Coutinho gave further details on the expansion of training. She said that following “the promising results of the initial pilot”, the government was extending AT training to a further 150 maintained schools. Ms Coutinho explained that this work, known as the ‘AT test and learn programme’, would teach mainstream school staff how to use AT effectively. She said that the government wanted to “build on the learnings from last year’s pilot”. She argued that by running the training programme over six months and commissioning a comprehensive impact evaluation, the government would gain a more thorough picture of how the programme could support wider SEND training.

3. Assistive technology in employment

3.1 What challenges do adults with SEND face in employment?

People with disabilities can face challenges in employment that AT may be able to help with; this includes people with special educational needs. This section explores these issues.

In a recent briefing on invisible disabilities, POST reported that the employment rate for disabled people is lower than for non-disabled people, with lower rates observed for those with certain invisible disabilities. POST also noted that disabled workers are likely to be paid less and more likely to be employed part-time, self-employed, or employed in the public sector. Job applicants who have disclosed a disability have also been found to have lower call-back rates.

On the barriers to hiring disabled people, POST reported that employers mentioned a variety of issues, including:

  • cost and practicalities of making adjustments
  • impact on other staff
  • lack of applications from disabled people
  • risk to health and safety
  • inaccessible application processes
  • low employer capability
  • potential for mistreatment from co-workers

Disabled people were also found to be underrepresented among employees responsible for recruitment decisions: only 6% of such employees were disabled.

In addition, some recruitment processes have been found to be inaccessible and inadvertently discouraging for prospective disabled applicants. For example, including generic essential job criteria such as ‘excellent communication skills’ could dissuade people who stammer from applying. Similarly, biases in performance management policies have been highlighted. For example, POST reported that in a 2021 NHS staff survey of pandemic experiences, disabled workers reported missing out on training and learning opportunities while shielding.

Other common workplace policies, such as inflexible work hours and location, have also been found to be problematic for disabled individuals. POST also highlighted that public services linked to employment, such as transport, have been found to be a barrier to participation in work and education for disabled individuals.

3.2 How can assistive technology help disabled job seekers and employees?

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee’s 2018 report on AT focused largely on AT and employment. It said that AT could “transform the employment prospects of disabled people” and enable them to do jobs that would otherwise be impossible. The committee also reported that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had said that AT could help close the disability employment gap (the difference between how many disabled people are in work and how many non-disabled people are in work).

In a report with the thinktank Policy Connect, the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for AT argued that AT can help to “remove digital barriers and open opportunities for education, training, and work for disabled people”. For example, it argued that screen readers can remove text-based barriers for individuals with visual impairments and dyslexia. In its research note, POST also said that research had shown that assistive and accessible technologies could remove barriers to participation for disabled people.

However, issues have been raised with some forms of AT and access to the technology. The APPG on AT has said that its research found that current systems of AT provision could be unintentionally creating barriers, especially at key transition points, such as moving into work. To address these issues, the APPG called on employers to improve their awareness of AT systems and implement them where necessary. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has also made recommendations to improve access to AT. For example, it argued that the civil service should create a central standard for AT-compatible systems in government departments.

Sense, a charity for people with complex disabilities, has reported on issues with accessing AT. It said that AT can be expensive, giving the example of a popular screen reader costing £700. It argued that this can prohibit people from owning the technology individually, and while someone in work can usually get this funded through the ‘Access to work’ scheme, it is not available to those looking for work. As a result, such individuals may need external services to look and apply for work.

In addition, the charity said that no jobcentres have computers with specialist AT installed which it argued was “inadequate” and meant that some individuals could not use computers when visiting a Jobcentre. With most recruitment processes online, this can be problematic. Sense therefore called for the introduction of a £5mn Jobcentre AT fund.

3.3 What are the government policies for assistive technology and employment?

There are several government schemes to support disabled people in employment. The main scheme is ‘Access to work’, which provides both practical and financial support. However, the scheme does not pay for reasonable adjustments, which are the changes an employer must legally make to support an employee.

In July 2022, Chloe Smith, the then minister for disabled people, health and work, answered a written question about the training offered to disability employment advisors and work coaches on AT. Ms Smith said that as part of their training, they are expected to complete the module ‘assisted digital’ which provides them with relevant knowledge and skills. She also noted a new product, ‘accessibility fundamentals learning’, which provides knowledge on the various features in Microsoft products that can be used to make employment opportunities more accessible.

In answer to a further written question on this issue in September 2022, Victoria Prentis, a then minister of state at the DWP, said that the department had completed an upgrade to all customer computers across the whole Jobcentre network. Ms Prentis said that all devices provided for use by customers have standard accessibility features. She also said that the software needed in Jobcentres is “constantly upgraded” and that additional support is available to customers where reasonable adjustments are identified and recorded.

In July 2021, the government published its national disability strategy which set out “actions the government will take to improve the everyday lives of all disabled people”. In part two of the strategy, the government announced plans to invest up to £1mn in 2021 and 2022 to develop a new centre for assistive and accessible technology.

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Cover image by DCStudio on Freepik.