First ever global guide for assistive technology to improve the lives of millions

03 March 2021

Original article published by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Eight-year old Aseel had a surgery when she was a baby that left her partially paralyzed. She has spent most of her life finding ways to adapt and experience a normal childhood in a refugee camp in Jordan. Being a refugee hasn’t made her life easier. Until recently, Aseel used a stroller as a makeshift wheelchair and struggled to get around and stay engaged in the classroom because the stroller hurt her back.  

Thanks to WHO’s work on globalizing wheelchair guidelines and UNICEF’s disability-focused programmes, a wheelchair of appropriate size and design was provided to Aseel to help her be included in school activities and move around more easily. 

Like Aseel, many people in the world today lack access to appropriate assistive technology. WHO estimates that out of the one billion people needing at least one assistive product, nine in ten go without. Children with injuries living in low- and middle-income or fragile countries mostly depend on donated wheelchairs, which are often of poor quality and inappropriate for the user or their environment.

The barriers are manifold, but mostly they have to do with the cost and availability of assistive products, the lack of harmonized specifications, broken supply systems, and the fact that society is still not as inclusive of persons with disabilities as it needs to be. The result for many people in low- and middle-income countries: either no access or only access to low-quality, inappropriate products.  

A new global guide to expand access to quality assistive products

To address some of those barriers, WHO has created the Assistive Products Specifications (APS) a guide-book with specs for 26 prioritized assistive products that describes the minimum quality requirements for manufacturing. Funded by UK Aid under Global Disability Innovation Hub’s AT2030 programme, the APS supports a focus on innovative products, new service models, and global capacity to drive disability innovation for a fairer world.

This first compilation of the APS includes products selected from the Priority assistive products list and covers mobility, hearing, vision, communication, cognition and self-care. The products range from clubfoot braces and wheelchairs to hearing aids, alarm signalers and audio-players.  

The main aim of the APS is to ensure countries get supply of good quality and affordable assistive products for all who need them. Each APS in the compilation describes the functional and performance requirements that can be used as a model to guide manufacturing and procurement.  

This year, WHO and UNICEF will issue a joint tender for wheelchair and hearing aids and will ensure the products reach those who need them. The two agencies have already identified and are working with assistive technology manufacturers to ensure the specs are followed and that production and supply can be cost-effective for both bulk buyers and individuals. Both organizations will also support countries with training to adapt their national standards to improve access to quality, life-changing health products.

Appropriate assistive technology can have a direct impact on the well-being of children and adults of all ages by supporting their functionality and inclusion into society, thereby increasing the opportunities for education, employment and social engagement.  

For example, a proper use of hearing aids leads young children to improved language skills. Or, an appropriate wheelchair - like the one given to Aseel - can increase the chances of people completing their education, finding employment and engaging in social activities.

The APS is the first global guide for quality-assured assistive products and will be updated on a regular basis. Quality assistive technology for all is the ultimate aim of this guide-book, and improved well-being for millions of people.

WHO work on assistive technology

WHO works to change the landscape of access to assistive technology through a multi-pronged approach based on human rights, universal health coverage and the realities of low- and middle-income countries. In 2016, it issued the Priority assistive products list, a compilation of the 50 most essential assistive products, selected based on a survey done with persons living with disabilities and their carers. WHO has been active in wheelchair provision since 2004 and introduced the Wheelchair Guidelines, training and wheelchair provision standards.  

UNICEF work on assistive technology

UNICEF focuses on three key activities to ensure disability-inclusive supplies are available and accessible worldwide. First, the organization is analyzing and updating its products in the UNICEF Supply Catalogue to ensure they are disability-friendly. Second, UNICEF is introducing new assistive technology to programmes worldwide, such as the new disability-friendly latrine. This work involves collaborating with WHO and partners to develop guidance for AT suppliers who produce products and humanitarian staff who procure the products. Finally, UNICEF is increasing advocacy efforts to gain a global consensus for assistive technology.  

More information: UNICEF webpage on assistive technology

WHO-UNICEF Joint Action Plan on Assistive Technology

To improve access to assistive technology for everyone, everywhere, on 28 July 2020, WHO and UNICEF signed a Joint Action Plan on Assistive Technology and included provision of assistive products under the Strategic Collaboration Framework between The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund to bring a catalytic impact and provide quality assistive products to the 900 million people that are lacking it.

More information: WHO page on Assistive technology

UK Aid’s AT2030 led by Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub)

AT2030 tests ‘what works’ to improve access to AT and support solutions to scale. With a focus on innovative products, new service models, and global capacity support, the programme aims to reach nine million people directly and six million more indirectly to enable a lifetime of potential through life-changing assistive technology. GDI Hub is a research and practice centre driving disability innovation for a fairer world. Operational in 35 countries, the GDI Hub develops bold approaches, partnerships and ecosystems to accelerate change.   

More information: AT2030


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Anne Sophie Bonefeld
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UNICEF Supply Division
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