14.1 Independence is a very important aspiration for most people. In the context of people with disabilities, it could be defined as requiring dignified self-determination with or without the assistance of others.
14.2 Technology and telecommunications can play a major role in helping people with disabilities to secure equal status in most areas of life and society. It can help people with hearing impairments to communicate; visually impaired people to 'read' and use computers; physically impaired people to live independently, work and to get about. However, it can also create barriers with the increased sophistication of everyday services such as banking and buying tickets. Too much technological adeptness may also be required of people: those with mobility impairments, for example, may be asked to use wheelchairs bristling with technology that are not always easy to learn or use.
14.3 General-purpose items of technology in everyday use should be usable by everybody, including people with disabilities, but often they are not. For example, there is a whole range of household consumer products like washing machines, cookers, and microwave ovens which use digital displays which communicate nothing to people with visual impairments. To include the kind of speech technology frequently used in children's toys in them when they are manufactured would literally cost pennies.
14.4 The main classes of technical aids listed by the International Standard Organisation (ISO 1992) indicate the wide range of equipment, devices and adaptations available as assistive technology. They range from simple, low-tech items like adapted clothing to high-tech robotics and include aids for:
14.5 The present system of delivering assistive technology to people with disabilities is totally inadequate and frequently unjust. It does not meet the requirements of the UN Standard Rules; it is based on legislation that is vague and open to different interpretations; it contains many anomalies between groups of disabilities and regions of the country.
14.6 Responsibility for providing assistive technology rests primarily with Health Boards, supported by voluntary bodies. This automatically places it within an inappropriate medical and charity context rather than basing it on rights and a holistic approach. There is little or no accountability and no procedures for appealing decisions. Services, when available, can often be very slow.
14.7 The Commission recommends that the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Transport Energy and Communications should introduce legislation to ensure access to assistive technology and telecommunications, in line with the UN Standard Rules. Access to this technology should include financial access.
14.8 A single existing agency should be responsible for all assistive technology and for disseminating information about new technological developments. Services should continue to be provided by a mixture of state and voluntary organisations but voluntary sector services must be properly funded and regulated.
14.9 This agency should also provide an adequate assessment service of the most appropriate technical aids for people with disabilities (see Chapter 4). It should examine an individual's needs and the available options and make recommendations. In doing so it should look at:
14.10 Many user's needs are simple. They may only require, for example, a non-conventional telephone which can be bought from a telephone shop. But user's needs are often more complex than they appear at first and careful consideration is required in recommending equipment that is affordable, available, adaptable and user friendly. The assessment must be holistic: if a user's disability is of a changing nature, it is vital that whatever is recommended is adjustable to changing needs.
14.11 The overall agency should set up nominated assessment centres and support them with appropriate funding for equipment, staff and training. There should also be a county network of 'feeder' or 'outreach' centres to provide primary assessments and training. All assessment must be based on a person centred approach.
14.12 Various telecommunications applications also fall within the definitions of assistive technology. These include applications for carrying out services at a distance such as care (telecare), transactions (teleshopping), learning (distance education) and work (teleworking). Interactive communication (by the ordinary voice telephone or services like text telephony) and access to mass media (text captions on television programmes) can also help to meet needs for social contact and information.
14.13 However, telecommunication can also create new barriers through isolating people. In some cases, it may provide the preferred or only option but in other cases there may be a preference for more traditional and social ways of doing things. It is important that telecommunication does not substitute for face-to-face social contact, visits to shops or participation in mainstream employment and education.
14.14 The Commission recommends that the Department of Transport Energy and Communications should ensure that all companies licensed to provide telephone services should provide text telephone, a relay service and other special or adapted equipment required by people with disabilities. These services should not cost more than conventional telephones. All new public payphones should be accessible to everybody, including people in wheelchairs.
14.15 Drivers with disabilities who qualify for concessions should also qualify automatically for free mobile phone rental and a number of call units to cover any emergencies when they are travelling alone.
14.16 The Commission also recommends that RTE and other television stations with national licences should expand the number of hours and the range of programmes which are sub-titled. There should be a minimum of 50% of all programming hours captioned by 1998 and this should increase to all programming as soon as possible afterwards.
14.17 The ability to communicate is a fundamental human quality. For many people with disabilities it is a right which does not exist on a daily basis. Facilities are extremely limited for those whose first language is sign language and for those who do not communicate orally.
14.18 Interpreting support is clearly needed in public services such as hospitals, garda stations, courts and schools. Most information and public documents are available only in written text, with major consequences for people with sight impairments. Reader Services must be made available to people who need them and on conditions that are not so stringent that they exclude a large number of people.
14.19 People who are deaf and deaf/blind have communication skills which require some patience and training to understand. Such training is not available at present and should be provided in an approved centre. Interpreters should also be trained and available to people with speech impediments. Training for interpreters should be provided as a matter of priority, based on similar centres in the UK such as at Durham University.
14.20 There is also a need to recognise sign language which is not currently recognised in Ireland although it is at European level.