"Men in sheds" was the disparaging term given to the UK's assistive technology (AT) companies by a senior official at a government agency. It's fairly typical of a certain type of bureaucrat who is ignorant of the fact that this is a highly creative, inovative industry with an annual turnover of £60-£70 million.
Now Inclusive Technology chief executive Martin Littler is planning to bury the "Bill and Ben" perception once and for all by setting up the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA). And it has its founders meeting at the Institute of Directors in London on October 5.
Martin Littler has had an overwhelming response to his original suggestion for the new body. It aims to:
- lobby for the rights and interests of those needing assistive technology;
- provide expert and impartial support and advice to government departments and agencies;
- educate and inform widely on the benefits of AT;
- promote the British AT products and expertise at home and overseas.
The organisations expressing an interest in joining include AbilityNet, ACE Centre (Oxford), Aclasstechnology, BDA, Call Centre, Cenmac, Clarosoft, Crick, Dolphin, Enabling Computors, Experia, Hands-Free, Iansyst, Inclusive Technology, Keytools, Liberator, Logan Technologies, Microlink, Penfriend, Possum, Reachdata, SEMERC, SmartBox, Soundbeam, speaks4me, textHELP, Traxsys and Widgit.
It was in his email invitation to potential members that Martin Littler (left) dropped the "men in sheds" bombshell. He writes: "A senior official at one of the government agencies recently told me that the AT industry is thought of by fellow officials as 'Men in Sheds'. Leaving aside the sex stereotyping, the implication is that we are a piddling industry and this may explain why we are not thought able to receive Invitations to Tender even when the sole subject of the tender is AT.
"In fact if you were to add up the revenue of the organisations listed above you are probably talking of £60 or £70 million annual turnover with 10-15 per cent exported worldwide. (Over the next five years I would like to see us double both of these numbers.)
"After the United States, we have by far the biggest AT industry in the world, an order of magnitude ahead of anywhere in Europe, with several companies which lead in their field worldwide. Almost straight away I would like to see a BATA website which shouts this message and signposts the capabilities, achievements and products of BATA members."
The only surprise about the BATA announcement is the realisation that the UK did not have a group representing assistive technology suppliers. It is likely to get a strong response and develop an important voice at a time when it is felt that national organisations like Becta and the DCFS have lost their high special needs profile and expertise.
Martin Littler concludes: "Running NOF [New Opportunites Fund] training taught me how much scope there is for improving the take-up of assistive technology – and this is even more true in Europe. Our competition is ignorance, not each other. Any customers turned on by a competitor's product is a customer turned on to AT, and may soon be my customer too. Banding together offers new and cost-effective opportunities for influence and publicity for AT."
A new website is being planned for this address http://BATAonline.org