Digital inclusion – nobody should be without a voice!
About 63,000 people living in Austria have a restricted ability to speak. To communicate they require aids that are precisely tailored to their needs. To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, Diakonie and VERBUND highlight gaps and problems accessing Supported Communication and Assistive Technologies.
Liam Weingartner uses eye control for the PC and a speech output program. And has done since he was 2½ years old. Now aged 12, he has learned not only how to speak as well as cultural techniques like reading, writing and arithmetic; with the eye control, he can also drive remote-controlled cars or play computer games. He says of himself: "On the computer, I really like playing 'Need for Speed' because I like fast cars and can drift. The computer actually gives me my superpower. One day I want to work at LIFEtool and develop software there. A successful career as a YouTube influencer would also be great."
"On the Day of Persons with Disabilities, we want to once again draw attention to the difference that the right aids can make to the life of a person living with disabilities. In fact, examples like Liam show us the possibilities that assistive technologies offer and why a good supply of aids is essential," says Diakonie director Maria Katharina Moser. "Because technology makes a self-determined life possible for people with speech limitations."
Natascha Toman also communicates via assistive technologies. She says, "Because of my physical disability (CP, athetosis), my speech centre is also affected, so I use a speech computer in everyday life. I cope with my daily life mainly with personal assistance. I am employed and also try to share my personal experiences on the subject of Supported Communication. Other than that, I really like to travel, love trying out new things – even if they are often slightly crazy – am made about chess and constantly on the go."
Red tape must be slashed
"In Austria, the way to getting the right aids is complicated, opaque and drawn-out," criticises the Diakonie director. "There is no legal entitlement to financing for the assistive communication aids, and many offices at provincial and federal level are involved in making an application." For the affected persons, however, time is often in short supply if they have illnesses with advancing symptoms, for example. That's why quick processing on the supply side is important for the affected persons and their family members.
"Every day that communication fails is one day too many," adds Michael Strugl, CEO of VERBUND AG. "The long-term objective of the VERBUND Empowerment Fund of Diakonie is to establish a legal entitlement to the financing of assistive technologies for people with disabilities," says Strugl.
"A legal entitlement must, alongside the financing of the aids themselves, also cover central points of contact in all federal provinces, where the application and approval can be processed quickly and unbureaucratically, as well as advice, so that the affected persons get the aids that are right for them and also learn how to use them."
The financing of aids is a matter for the public sector
A simpler way to supply aids to people with disabilities is planned in the National Disability Action Plan for 2022-2030. However, the envisaged time frame to 2030 is much too long for every single affected person and their family members.
"The hope is for matters to move more quickly following the upcoming financial settlement negotiations. Because we've been calling for the uniform and transparent financing of aids for communication across Austria for years. Communication is a human right and it is high time that something was done in this area," says Moser.
Donations plug supply gap
The supply gap that the welfare state leaves open here currently has to be closed with donations. Thus the VERBUND Empowerment Fund of Diakonie has been supporting the individual counselling of around 6,000 people with disabilities on the possibilities of Assisted Communication and Assistive Technology since 2009. Almost 12,000 educators, therapists and immediate family members have been sensitised and informed at over 1,000 workshops and seminars. The fund also supports the early support of children and provides immediate help with the purchase of assistive technologies.