Developing assistive technology and disability services in true partnership with service owners: what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us

Thematic Area of product / prototype / service: 
Company (if applicable): 
Enable Ireland
Description of the product/Prototype/service: 
Context Enable Ireland’s Virtual Service is an online model of service developed in partnership with Microsoft and with service owners (adults with disabilities) nationally. When services closed in March 2020 due to Covid, all service owners found themselves isolated at home, with no access to their regular day services or their friends. Staff were anxious to find a way to reinstate their day services, in the midst of very uncertain times. Using Microsoft Teams, an online video conferencing and collaboration platform, staff and service owners worked in partnership to design this new online service model. It is characterized by a daily menu of initially 6 (now 4) hour-long sessions and a parallel provision of one to one chat sessions by rostered staff, as well as some evening sessions. This new model of service seeks to address the gap resulting from service closures, recognizing the fear, social isolation and stressors impacting on service owners as a consequence of the pandemic. An initial evaluation, completed in June 2021, indicated a consistently high satisfaction rating among service owners, staff, families and Microsoft staff and volunteers. All stakeholders indicated a desire to ensure its sustainability, with many of Virtual Service’s benefits reflecting an emerging sense of shared ownership and collaborative working between service owners and staff. Virtual Service: Accessible and Assistive Technologies Enable Ireland worked closely with Microsoft to maximise access to and use of their rich array of accessibility features in Teams. However, many participants of the Virtual Service are Assistive Technology users or prospective users, so ensuring compatibility of accessible and assistive technologies was a high priority. In addition, new technologies were harnessed (such as Bluetooth switches) to make access via smart phones and tablets, across multiple environments easier. Staff whose previous roles did not involve technology per se, actively participated in the research, procurement and implementation of new technology solutions to meet the needs of participants, so that capacity was built across Adult Services in new and unexpected ways. This merging of accessible and assistive technologies, through the commitment and dedication of these staff and the growing confidence of service owners in leading and co-designing the content of the Virtual Service will be discussed, together with the emergence of many key players across Enable Ireland who embraced roles as Virtual Service coordinators and accessible and assistive technology supporters. Technology and Employment In December 2021 grant funding was secured to expand the Virtual Service. The learning from the previous 18 months informed the next stage of development, with an increased focus on self advocacy, employment and community engagement. 16 service owners were employed in part time roles to design and deliver key sessions both locally and nationally. By April 2022, it is envisaged that a further 4 employment contracts will be in place. Further financial investment has resulted in securing the future of this innovative service for a further year, with a view to embedding a new hybrid model of service delivery, as society reopens post-pandemic. Technology and Inclusion: next steps It is evident that this rapid response in the form of the establishment of a technology-enabled Virtual Service has accelerated engagement in the use of accessible and assistive technologies for employment, self advocacy and meaningful community engagement. Learning from this rapid response will be shared during this session, including the mainstreaming of AT nationally across Enable Ireland, the impact of paid employment roles and the concurrent progress in self advocacy as evidenced by service owners’ participation in external paid consultancy roles. Prior to the establishment of the Virtual Service, assistive technology played a distinct but discrete role in many people’s lives, including service owners and staff. The depth and breadth of choice of built in accessibility in mainstream technologies (many of those being smart home technologies) combined with the greater affordability of assistive technologies, along with significant government investment in disability services and support has led to an exponential increase in meaningful engagement across Enable Ireland’s services nationally. This session will share the findings of its most recent survey of service owners and staff to support the proposal to make the Virtual Service a key component of all services, in a hybrid model, on a permanent basis. Technology has finally radicalised disability service delivery. It will facilitate discussion with participants on the opportunities which service innovations during the pandemic now offer in the longer term and explore challenges around sustainability and evolution, with service owners at the heart of the decision making process.
Level of innovation: 
This is an entirely new service. It is online and is led by service owners in a manner that was simply unimaginable pre-pandemic. It has also opened up paid employment opportunities for service owners. It has informed many other aspects of service development too, from the accessibility of HR processes to digital accessiblity across all online activites. It represents a true partnership between service owners and service providers.
Siobhán Long, Jason O’Reilly, Padhraic Dormer and Seán Hall