Ireland and WHO work together to improve access to assistive technology globally

Ireland is becoming a global leader in the field of innovation in harnessing digital technologies as a tool to address various barriers for access to care. In alignment with WHO, Ireland recognizes the importance of mobilizing assistive technology to help the 2.5 billion people in need globally, including older persons, people with disabilities, and those living with health conditions. This includes ensuring equitable access to assistive products such as glasses, hearing aids, walking aids, wheelchairs, prosthetics, and communication and memory devices.

In March 2024, Anne Rabbitte, T.D., Ireland’s Minister of State with special responsibility for disabilities at the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, agreed to a €12.5 million donor agreement between the Government of Ireland and WHO, aimed at accelerating affordability and availability of assistive technology for those in need.

The cooperation has been building throughout the years. Back in 2022, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, launched the Global report on assistive technology, along with the Director-General of WHO and the Executive Director of UNICEF. The Taoiseach highlighted the importance of international cooperation to ensure more equitable access to assistive technology, in order to achieve a society where everyone is included and enabled to live their best life.

Minister Rabbitte stated that: “Ireland has identified the serious need to invest in public health systems alongside the WHO. The present risk of rising health needs coupled with a decreasing pool of health and social care professionals globally reveals an urgent need for all of us to act now. Ireland’s contribution aligns with the recommendations of the Global Report on Assistive Technology and supports a five-year initiative towards achieving national health system models that include assistive technology. The programme will explore and demonstrate how digital technology can facilitate people-centred services, assistive technology policy, improve the affordability and appropriateness of assistive products, enable effective provision systems, and boost the capacity of health personnel to identify, screen, refer and provide assistive technology for all those in need.”

Health personnel in Tanzania participating in on-line training on assistive products, as part of an overall program aimed at provision of simple assistive products through community and primary health care facilities – making products such as walking aids and reading glasses more readily available for people within their local area. Digital technology was instrumental in facilitating efficient learning through the platform, and enabling support for health workers from their mentors through communication apps after the training. Credit: WHO/Kylie Shae

With an ageing global population and a rise in noncommunicable diseases, an estimated 3.5 billion people will need assistive technology by 2050. Dr Yukiko Nakatani, WHO Assistant Director-General, Access to Medicines and Health Products, welcomes this important contribution from Ireland and their leadership in the digital initiative. She said: “The 2018 World Health Assembly resolution on assistive technology calls upon WHO to take the necessary steps to promote equitable access to assistive technology in our endeavour to build a more inclusive world. Our partnership with the Government of Ireland will support WHO in achieving our mission to ensure health for all, everywhere, with assistive technologies as an important enabler of well-being, inclusion, and participation.”

Through Ireland’s contribution, and in collaboration with its broad network of partners, WHO will develop evidence-based guidance for Member States on strengthening access to assistive technology through understanding, prioritising and stimulating increased innovation and use of digital solutions. The work will also involve national, regional, and global projects that test digital solutions designed to address persistent access barriers such as: digital platforms that empower users with information about assistive technology and how to access it; digital tracking of products to manage supply; and online training and support for health workers. The results and lessons learned will help countries expand their knowledge, skills, and capacities in the provision of assistive technology as an integral component of Universal Health Care.

‘Leaving no one behind’ means ensuring that people with disabilities, the older population, those affected by chronic diseases and everyone who needs assistive technology are included in society and able to live healthy and dignified lives.

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Click below to find out what is assistive technology, who needs it, and how it improves lives

Assistive technology is an umbrella term for external products used by individuals to help maintain or improve their bodily functions. Common examples are wheelchairs, glasses, prosthetic limbs, white canes, and hearing aids as well as digital solutions such as speech recognition or time management software. Assistive technology helps people in all aspects of their lives, including in education, employment, fitness, leisure and other everyday activities such as self-care, cooking and reading.

Most people will need assistive technology at some point in their lives, especially as they age. While some may require assistive technology temporarily, such as after an accident or illness, others may require it for a longer period or throughout their lifespan. It is commonly needed by older people, children and adults with disabilities, people who have been injured or who have a health condition such as diabetes, stroke and dementia.

Equitable access is key

Improving access to assistive technology enables the inclusion and participation of users in their family, community and all areas of society, including the political, economic and social spheres. Assistive technology positively impacts a person, their family and friends, and has broader socioeconomic benefits. For example:

  • early provision of hearing aids for young children supports their development of language and communication skills, limiting negative impacts on their education, future employment and community participation;
  • provision of appropriate wheelchairs facilitates mobility, improving individuals’ access to education and employment while reducing healthcare costs due to a reduction in secondary complications such as pressure sores and contractures;
  • therapeutic footwear for diabetes reduces the incidence of foot ulcers, preventing amputations and the associated impact on individuals and burden on health-care systems; and
  • timely provision of assistive technology for older people can improve their independence and safety as well as enable them to live at home for as long as possible.
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