How to make the business case for assistive technologies

TORONTO  – A compelling business case, rather than legislative or societal pressure, is the best way to convince companies to invest in assistive technologies, according to the president of NCR Corp.’s assistive technologies division.

Speaking at the International Conference on Technology and Aging Tuesday, Steve Jacobs said NCR research proves such a business opportunity does exist.

“For a long time, accessible design has been a supply-push effort,” said Jacobs, who heads the not-for-profit IDEAL division at NCR. “(We need to be) pointing out the business reasons for accessible design, rather than saying, ‘You have to do this because it’s the law.’”

Jacobs pointed to NCR’s @ccessible @TM project as an example of how investment in assistive technologies can pay dividends. While the @ccessible @TM exists as a concept model rather than a commercial product, Jacobs said it shows how features that provide functionality for the general population can derive from attention given to people with disabilities.

Among the @TM’s features are air-jets to inform people with hearing difficulties that their money is exiting the cash dispenser, and a high-contrast touch-screen, originally designed to aid visually impaired people, that also mitigates the effect of glare.

“If you design for a person with low vision, good, sharp contrast, you can put the ATM in more places,” Jacobs said.

Mickey Milner, director of the Ontario Rehabilitation Technology Consortium, said he encourages scientists using ORTC funding to develop business cases for their innovations.

“The business community looks at business first; we look at needs first,” Milner said. “We’re trying to bring the culture of innovation together with the culture of business.”

Milner said an aging population, at least in North America, is creating a larger market for companies developing assistive technologies. Canadians aged 65 years of age or older already total four million, and the figure soars to 38 million in the United States and 191 million worldwide, Jacobs said.

He referenced the volume-control button on pay telephones to show innovations designed for seniors can have much wider applications.

The volume-control, Jacobs said, was designed to help hearing-impaired seniors but is also applicable to anyone making calls in loud places like airports.

“When you design for senior citizens, you can accommodate a large number of people worldwide,” he said.

Jacobs said companies should be particularly attuned to what he called the CIBIRSPACE market, composing China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Poland, Argentina and Central and Eastern Europe.

Where illiterate people number less than 10 million in Canada and the United States, the CIBIRSPACE countries have 800 million citizens unable to read. Jacobs said this shows a large potential market for innovations like the multilingual text-to-speech synthesizer and the talking ATM, which NCR developed primarily for people with disabilities.

“If you make a decision locally that it’s not worth it, you’re throwing away (huge) market potential,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said marketing divisions at companies should develop such business cases for assistive technologies and convince the people holding the purse strings to set up divisions such as NCR’s IDEAL.

For Milner, the task is a little different. His organization receives $1.5 million each year from the province, provided the ORTC can raise that same amount from private sources. He said the ORTC has been able to manage more than that, but stressed that the government is essential as it is more willing to take risks than is the business community.

“The thing that keeps us alive is the government resources that act as a knitting component,” he said.

The public-private partnership is a common theme when it comes to deployment of resources for the disabled in Ontario.

The Ontario Ministry of Health’s Assistive Devices Program pays up to 75 per cent of necessary equipment and supplies, though the equipment is actually deployed by the private sector.

Karen Gansel, acting senior manager of the ADP, said Ontario is the most generous province when it comes to funding assistive devices. However, she acknowledged that an aging population presents new challenges.

“There’s a recognition that demands for technology will increase over time. It is a discretionary program, so it is up to the government of the day.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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