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Researching assistive technology Smart homes What works

What makes assistive technology work in organisations?

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We often look at assistive technology through the lens of individual users’ needs but are we overlooking all the organisational factors that need to be in place to ensure success?

Julie Eshleman, a PhD Candidate at University of Stirling, has been investigating what works when implementing assistive technology in care settings. Following an overview of her research, Julie suggests how her findings could inform approaches to embedding assistive technology in other contexts, including further and higher education.

Background

As part of the Assistive Technology Team at Leonard Cheshire, we set out to find ways that more disabled people living in care settings could benefit from everyday technology.

In the right conditions people can find more moments of independence and have better access to relationships, activities, and spaces they enjoy with smart home technology.

As we met with potential smart home tech users living in one of our residences, we created a process we could follow in the rest of the organisation to connect people with the technology tools to build the lives they want.

We found there are many influencing factors that have an impact on how a user is supported to use technology.

Guided by discussions with stakeholders, we pursued these questions to better understand how we can get more technology into the hands and homes of people who want it:

  1. How are disabled people in care settings using and experiencing technology for daily life?
  2. What are the key influences in the environment and support systems that lead to positive outcomes for disabled technology users in care and other support settings?

What we did

Care leaders, assistive technology professionals and providers, and technology users each contributed their perspective on ‘what works’ to make a more complete picture of technology in care settings.

We met with small groups to capture ideas that are most important and to shape our research questions – what is it that each group needs to know so we can work together to make tech work better? We used a mixed-methods approach to gather qualitative evidence, followed by a survey to help us quantify and prioritise our findings.

How we did it

We held virtual discussion groups with people from each stakeholder group and met individually with potential technology users and professionals.

In all, we conducted more than 30 discussions with 46 people to understand what information will help care organisations support technology better. From these discussions, we made formulas that describe the necessary conditions for successful technology outcomes.

What we found

Here are some key findings that may be applicable for your practice:

  1. Practical infrastructure: There must be enough power mains to power and charge devices, adequate data connections (Wi-Fi, mobile data, hard-wired internet), and a system with sufficient broadband to support the number of devices in ecosystem. Many people in the organisation should have some tech skills (a resilient skills infrastructure), and on-demand knowledge and support that tech users and care workers can access to support troubleshooting and manage devices, warranties, repairs, etc (like IT).
  2. Beliefs about disability: There need to be high expectations for what kinds of lives disabled people should have in care. Disabled people deserve to have meaningful ways to spend their time, to be safe, to be supported to have moments of privacy and independence, and have tools they want to lead self-directed daily lives. When care teams support people with these beliefs in mind, they are more likely to find a role for technology without feeling like they are being replaced.
  3. Beliefs about technology: Technology frees up care teams to provide the skilled care that people need and does not replace person-delivered care hours. Technology should enable disabled people to take control of their spaces and time (think smart home things like switching on and off lights, controlling streaming entertainment like movies and music, and reaching out to loved ones) so care workers are more available to perform other critical and meaningful elements of support.
  4. Technology belongs in care: If a person is truly being supported to build the life they want, technology should be part of that conversation. Think about the difference it would make in your own daily life if your smartphone, tablet, or television broke – we truly do rely on technology for our relationships and activities now. Disabled people who are using care must be supported to build lives that are meaningful, and that now includes technology just as much as it does personal care, health management, and housing.

Why it matters

Especially since the onset of COVID lockdowns, there is a push to integrate technology as quickly as possible. We should integrate technology into daily life so disabled people have more tools to build the lives and experiences they want.

The perfect piece of technology, performing well and meeting a person’s personal goals, with the perfect access method, will fail if we do not consider factors about the influence of the environment and support networks on technology outcomes.

We cannot build great technology outcomes between the person and the tool – it takes a whole village, and some substantial shifts in our thinking.

This research helps us understand what makes technology use successful by people in care settings, and what critical beliefs and actions to start cultivating in support networks to make sure that tech is not only adopted but also integrates into daily life for people.

How could you apply these findings in your own organisation?

You can bring successful technology outcomes to your organisation by shifting language and thinking among your leaders and colleagues.

Consider the following questions to find your starting point advocating for technology as one of the support options for disabled people:

  • What do we (as supporters, as an organisation) believe about where technology belongs in daily life? Do our words (what we say we believe about technology) match what we are doing (how we are using, supporting, talking about, feeling towards technology)?
  • What do we believe about independence for disabled people, and what role can technology play? How can technology help support workers do their jobs differently?
  • Where can I support someone to use technology to access something they enjoy? Who can I communicate with in my organisation to share this outcome and start to encourage more interest in and engagement with technology?

Main photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

 

By Julie Eshleman

Julie Eshleman is conducting this research as part of the requirements for a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology and Social Policy from the University of Stirling. She has been a special education teacher, disability trainer, organisational behaviour consultant, and mixed methods researcher with a special interest in understanding how people are experiencing the systems and processes around them. She is currently based in the United States and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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