Wheelchair users call for urgent innovation to increase economic productivity in UK

July 30, 2018

Data from a new international survey of wheelchair users on behalf of the Toyota Mobility Foundation highlights the need for innovation in the field of assistive technology to allow people with limited mobility in the UK the opportunity to fulfil their potential in the workplace. The impact of which could have huge consequences for the estimated 65 million people worldwide who use a wheelchair and for the global economy.

The survey, involving wheelchair users across five countries around the world (UK, US, Japan, India and Brazil), found that more than half of wheelchair users polled in the UK say that they have been unable to work as a result of using a mobility device (54%). This figure for those saying they had been unable to work as a result of using a mobility device was worse than all four other countries: Japan (33%), US (36%), India (37%) and Brazil (37%).

The survey was commissioned in order to better understand the day-to-day experiences of wheelchair users as part of Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge. This $4 million dollar Toyota Mobility Foundationglobal challenge aims to transform the lives of people with lower-limb paralysis around the world by encouraging innovators to create urgently needed, game-changing technology. Three in ten wheelchair users polled said they had experienced frustration because the design of their current mobility device felt outdated. 

The survey found that nine out of ten wheelchair users in the UK said they had experienced negative consequences as a result of using a wheelchair or mobility device when working or job hunting (93%).  Three in ten of those surveyed said they felt their talent had been wasted (28%); while a fifth said they felt they had been held back in their career (21%); and one in six say that they’d been given less responsibility at work as a result of using a wheelchair or mobility device (15%). 

August de los Reye, Head of Design at Pinterest and formerly of XBox, said:

“I cannot imagine how my career path would have changed if the challenges I face in the workplace today had occurred early in my career. Of the various challenges highlighted from the survey results, commercial travel and transportation is still fraught with accommodating those of us in power wheelchairs.  As a designer, much of my work involves directly engaging with people who use the offerings we design. Given the global reach of technology, traveling the world to meet the customers we serve is vital to design meaningful products and services. The lack of accessible transportation hinders the invaluable direct contact needed to inform and humanise technologies that billions around the globe experience in their daily lives.  While my experience centres around design and technology, it is my hope that urgent innovation will avail people with ability differences, regardless of profession or personal interest, to travel easily and enjoy the outcome of direct engagement with the worldwide communities whom we serve.”

Dr Phil Friend OBE, former Chair of Disability Rights UK and Associate of the Business Disability Forum, said:

“It’s crucial that wheelchair users have the same opportunities in life as everybody else. I’ve spent many years talking to businesses of all sizes, telling them about practical steps they can take improve job opportunities for wheelchair users, but we also need innovation in assistive technologies to unlock the potential of the millions of people around the world who use wheelchairs. This isn’t just an issue that affects wheelchair users, it affects everyone. New, innovative technological solutions can benefit the whole of society.”

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge aims to address these issues uncovered by the survey through rewarding the development of personal mobility devices incorporating intelligent systems. Solutions of the future could include anything from exoskeletons to artificial intelligence and smart technologies. These solutions would not only have enormous benefits for individual users, as well as society as a whole. 

pic-2_1.jpgRyan Klem, Director of Programs for Toyota Mobility Foundation commented:

"With potentially millions of people around the world unable to work or be as productive due to their current mobility devices, there are clear social and economic implications which highlight the urgent need for innovation in the field of assistive technology. When people are free to move, they can broaden their horizons and fully realise their potential. Improving mobility is critical to creating an inclusive society. That’s why we’ve spoken to wheelchair users around the world to understand the issues they face and what they want created and why we have incorporated the element of co-creation between innovators and end-users into the Challenge requirements. We are now calling for engineers and designers to step up to the Challenge. We hope the devices created help improve employment opportunities and job prospects of those in wheelchairs."

Three out of ten UK wheelchair users in the survey said that using a wheelchair or mobility device had limited the jobs they could apply for (29%). A sixth said they have had to become self-employed (15%), while a quarter stated that they had to work from home (26%).

Charlotte Macken of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, said:

"What these figures show is that rather than society adapting to meet the needs of people with limited mobility, those individuals are having to adapt how they work - if they are even available to work at all. We hope this Challenge will change this situation and result in new technologies that will mean that people with limited mobility don’t face limited job opportunities.” 

Entries for the Mobility Unlimited Challenge close on August 15 2018. Five finalist teams will receive a $500,000 development grant in January 2019 and the winner of the $1 million final prize will be announced in Tokyo in 2020.  

For more information about Toyota Mobility Foundation please visit mobilityunlimited.org
Methodology: ComRes surveyed 575 wheelchair users* online in the UK, US, India, Brazil and Japan between 9th and 26th March 2018, with 105 of those in the UK. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Results can be found here. 
*Currently using a wheelchair/mobility device or have used one in the last 5 years for at least 6 months.

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