Sally McKeown was in on the birth of a new annual special needs event - ATEC   

'An embarrassment of riches' was the best phrase to describe the recent Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference (ATEC} held in Oxford.

Originally designed for 150 delegates, there were 225 of us crammed in to the venue on the day. But no one was complaining.

An event created this year for those involved in assistive technology, its audience was made up of disability professionals involved in post-16 education and the workplace. ATEC set out to highlight the latest developments in assistive technology and to provide a forum for people to find out the latest news about the Disabled Students' Allowances and Access to Work funding.

Groundwork for ATEC laid at BETT 2016   

ATEC was put together in very short order (see "Barclays backs new post-16 SEN conference"). At BETT 2016 in January it was in the early planning stages with Jury's Inn Oxford confirmed as a venue and Barclays as a sponsor.

It was the brainchild of Antony Ruck, chair of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) which advises government departments and campaigns for the rights and interests of those who need assistive technology, and Reeza Awoodun of TechEd Marketing which supports start-up businesses and works with leading companies such as Sonocent, Inspiration and Scanning Pens.

I wanted to know how the organisers had moved from no delegates in January to being over-subscribed with a waiting list in May, a situation that was the envy of many conference organisers. As well as a 'secret' blend of marketing programmes, the ATEC team worked with membership organisations including the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education, the British Dyslexia Association, the Business Disability Forum, and the National Association of Assessment Centres which publicised the event and soon had the applications rolling in.

Antony RuckAntony Ruck: 'global accessibility'It proved to be an excellent strategy. "There is a massive wealth of knowledge and experience in this community," said Antony Ruck, "but it lacks opportunities to network and share expertise and the organisations were keen to be involved."

Despite early successes, the team faced some challenges. When they first visited the venue there were two large halls, but one of these was knocked down just after Christmas so it was a tight squeeze to accommodate all the delegates and exhibitors.

The demographics were interesting: unlike many conferences concerning disability or special needs, the audience male-female ratiowas 50-50. Approximately 80 per cent came from education and about 20 per cent from the world of work. "BATA has always had a strong educational presence," added Antony Ruck, "but it's good to be working with the corporate sector too."

Disposable income of 'disability market' worth up to £500 billion   

The day started with three keynotes providing very different perspectives. Paul Smyth, head of IT accessibility with Barclays Bank talked about access and equity but also put forward a strong business case for ensuring services are accessible to people with disabilities. "They and their households have a disposable income of £200 billion," he explained. "When we add on the 'grey' or 'silver' pound of older consumers it's an extra £300 billion. So why wouldn't you meet the needs of those consumers?"

Debra CharlesDebra Charles: avoid 'normal'Debra Charles is CEO of Novacroft, the company behind the development of Oystercards and many business reward cards. She described her personal journey from being a girl with dyslexia, always in trouble for her poor spelling, to becoming a highly successful businesswoman.

Her keynote took issue with the word "normal": "I've always found it is a really annoying word. It took me 34 years to realise that I wasn't actually thick and I could add value." She appealed to teachers and the business community to lay aside their 'normal' recruitment processes and to take a closer look at the hidden talents of staff. 

Stuart Edwards works in the Department of Work and Pensions and is currently head of strategy for Access to Work, the government's flagship scheme to help disabled people find and keep jobs. This can provide grants of up to £41,400 per person per year for a wide range of supports.

Between 30 and 75 per cent of users abandon assistive technology

Currently it supports around 37,000 individuals but plans are afoot to boost numbers to 62,000 per year by end of this Parliament. One of the most interesting – and surprising – proposals is to fund driverless cars. "This will be a massive game changer," said Stuart Edwards.  "Access to Work spends around £30 million a year on taxi support to people with sight loss and others."

According to Adam Pearce of Notetalker, assessors for Access to Work and the Disabled Students' Allowance now have to consider whether a laptop or smartphone with an app could be used to record lectures and seminars rather than the traditional digital voice recorder. There are many benefits to this because as Abi James of the British Dyslexia Association pointed out between 30 and 75 per cent of users abandon assistive technology and this is a waste of time and money.

They need to be motivated to learn how to use and feel that it will simplify their life. They also need to find it attractive or they will ditch it. Adam Pearce pointed out that 90 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK had a smartphone in 2015 and 98 per cent of all phones in the UK are either iPhone or Android. Adding value to a smartphone offers a discrete and easy to manage solution which is likely to be more acceptable to those who need support.

There was also advice for companies. Lucy Ruck from the Business Disability Forum introduced the Accessibility Maturity Model, a self-review framework with best practice guides to give companies a good starting point and case studies on topics such as reasonable adjustment, using CGI and Captioning and a contribution from MatchWare about supporting those with autistic spectrum disorders.

Thirty exhibitors available for advice     

Nearly 30 exhibitors were on hand to offer advice including dyslexia experts Iansyst, Scanning Pens, TextHelp and Claro. There was advice on using voice recording aids from Notetalker and Sonocent and a range of spelling aids on offer from Spellex, Medincle and Global AutoCorrect

Delegates could talk to DSA and Access to Work suppliers Microlink and Wyvern and to specialist companies supporting those with sight loss including Dolphin Sight & Sound, Baum as well as experts in deaf technology Gordon Morris and 121 Captions.

The organisers were delighted with the response to this first ATEC conference and now plan to make it a flagship annual event. ATEC will also experiment with specialised events for different sectors. It hopes to run a conference on accessible examinations and this will cover all education sectors from schools to adult education and university. Alongside this it also wants to develop some debate about policy and hopes to attract audiences from universities, industry and central and local government, with keynotes from high profile speakers.

"It is really exciting," added Anthony Ruck. "We are looking at global accessibility and trying to take into account the needs of small businesses operating on a shoestring as well as some of the major players."

The ATEC conference was held in Oxford in May. To find out more about ATEC's plans check out the website:  

Sal McKeownSal McKeown, is a freelance special-needs journalist who was CIPR Business Education Journalist of the year 2015