Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Developing a National Research and Development Centre in Assistive Technologies for Independent Living

Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Developing a National Research and Development Centre in Assistive Technologies for Independent Living

Article excerpt


Assistive technology (AT) plays a pivotal role in the lives of people who require assistance with one or more aspects of daily living. Ranging from simple devices such as an augmented fork to complex devices like a power wheelchair with integrated environmental control, AT is a broad term to describe a range of products and services that provide assistance. Historically used in the "disability sector", in recent years AT devices have merged into the ageing sector as more Australians develop an impairment through "age-related disability", creating a larger market for equipment that provides independence or restores lost/reduced functionality. Despite the national focus on ageing, Australia lacks a nationally coordinated and cohesive AT sector - most AT equipment and devices are imported and the sector struggles for local research, development, and commercialisation funding.

In an attempt to address this issue, a network of rehabilitation engineering and AT centres, universities, and industry players formed a collaboration to submit a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) proposal to drive Australian AT products and services. The main focus was on developing Australian capacity within the sector and creating innovative products that met Australian needs, leading to import replacement. A secondary focus was on providing a national education program to provide ongoing AT training and development across multiple disciplines associated with both disability and ageing.

Aust Health Rev 2009: 33(1): 152-160

IN 2003, almost 1.9 million Australians relied on equipment known as "assistive technologies" to live independently;1 yet anecdotal evidence, and our own experience, suggests many do not have all the technology they require. In addition, the vast majority of Australia's technologies are imported, often resulting in suboptimal solutions and overextended support services. The term "assistive technology" (AT) has many published definitions, but a commonly accepted version is from US Public Law (PL 100-407), which describes AT as ". . . any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customised, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities".2 A broader definition has been provided recently by FAST (Foundation for Assistive Technology) in the United Kingdom, which describes AT as "... any product or service designed to enable independence for disabled and older people".3

The AT sector in Australia is small and fragmented, and dependent largely on imported products from overseas-based companies, especially in the areas of electronic communication aids, power wheelchair control systems and environmental control systems. As Australia's only independent testing facility for mechanical assistive and rehabilitation technology (eg, wheelchairs, shower chairs, etc), NovitaTech's accredited Testing Laboratory ( has seen a steady decline in Australian designed and fabricated products over the last 10 years. The knowledge and capacity base that Australia used to have in wheeled mobility is slowly being eroded as large multinational companies acquire local companies to complement existing product lines, shifting research and development (R&D) and manufacturing offshore. Several research studies and government inquiries have demonstrated the efficacy of AT devices in providing and maintaining independence, reducing hospital stays and nursing home admissions, and improving quality of life.4,5 Unfortunately, there has been little financial support for a cohesive approach to its broad scale use in rehabilitation and community independence for people with disabilities and the ageing community. In recent years increasing attention has been applied to the economic benefits that sound AT practice offers.6,7 More recently, international attention has been drawn to an Australian collaboration which is taking an economic standpoint perspective, to identify not only the costs of implementing AT solutions and the benefits of effective use, but also the costs of suboptimal AT provision and technology abandonment. …

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