Deputy Administrator Paloma Adams-Allen at the ATscale: Mobilizing for Assistive Technology Event

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Friday, January 14, 2022

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR ADAMS-ALLEN: Hello, everyone, and good morning from Washington, D.C.! What an honor it is to speak to you all, colleagues and partners, leaders and activists on the front lines making inclusive development a reality.

Last month, we celebrated the 29th International Day of Persons with Disabilities since it was established by the United Nations in 1992. We take an opportunity annually to unite around advancing equity and fairness for the disability community and lift up the extraordinary contributions of persons with disabilities around the world.

And, we have cause to celebrate decades of remarkable progress. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, according to one disability lawyer and rights advocate, was “a lightning rod across the world, igniting people with disabilities to seek equality in their own countries.” Indeed, in 2006, the international community adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a major step toward confirming disability as a human rights issue, and protecting persons with disabilities against discrimination in all areas of life.

These were vital milestones, to be sure. But much like other civil rights movements globally, the disability rights movement was born with a long view, recognizing it would take more than words to realize a world free of prejudice. We acknowledge that despite remarkable progress, many barriers, old and new, persist in our laws, our cultures, our attitudes and our landscapes.

Some of the most widely confronted barriers in the disability community include functions that are often taken for granted—things like sight, sound, and mobility. I find, for example, that I haven’t always appreciated how critical it’s been throughout my life to have access to prescription eyeglasses, without which I could not drive or work or move about the world safely.

But, as you know, there are more than a billion people in need of some form of assistive technology, 90 percent of whom do not have access to the support or products they need. And many of you fighting for greater access to assistive technology are leading the way; building political will and mobilizing needed investments.

At USAID—through ATscale and across our development work globally—we are listening to and empowering assistive technology users to chart their own course.

What we hear is overwhelming support for a vision of inclusive development—one that gives persons with disabilities, and all persons in need of assistive technology, every opportunity at full participation at home, at school, in the economy, and in public life.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified an already-uneven playing field.

When “normal life” came to a screeching halt, right around this time two years ago, many industries and many in the global workforce had the option to work remotely. When schools and businesses closed their doors, the Internet was a lifeline. People around the world were forced to adapt quickly, due to something outside of their control.

Responses to the pandemic left much to be desired for the disability community, and all those in need of assistive technology. But at such a defining moment for public health—and for global health equity—I sense from this community of leaders and advocates that this is also a moment of great opportunity.

Alongside USAID’s work to build back stronger, more resilient, more equitable health systems in over 100 countries, ATscale is bolstering its efforts to make accessible the products, systems, and services that so many of us take for granted. Because when it comes to inclusive development, we recognize that assistive technology is not simply a “nice to have.” It is imperative, both morally and economically.

Access to assistive tech, whether a prosthetic limb or caption-generating software, can mean the difference between success or failure in the classroom, between a job and unemployment, between freedom and dependency.

And the economic benefits are clear. ATScale’s latest report finds that investment in the provision of just four assistive products—hearing aids, prostheses, eyeglasses, and wheelchairs—can yield a return of nine to one. So, not only do we risk further marginalizing individuals who require these types of aids, but we’re leaving trillions of dollars in economic benefits on the table if we fail to meet the global need for assistive technology.

With a strong mandate from the United States Congress, and invaluable support from champions of disability rights like Senator Patrick Leahy, USAID has already reached more than a quarter of a million people with assistive products in recent decades, but the need continues to grow.

After establishing ATscale in 2018, USAID and many of the partners who are with us today worked to define a clear and compelling strategy to reach 500 million more people with assistive technology by 2030. But as we continue on the path to recovery from the pandemic, we must recommit to the principles of equality and opportunity that brought us together in the first place.

To help us reach this ambitious goal, USAID has committed $25 million to support ATscale over the next five years, and we are grateful to our bilateral and multilateral partners who are sparing no effort to commit their support. But it will take bold action and big investments from all of us.

We must continue to work with partner governments to support the development of national assistive technology programs. We must bring more private sector partners into the fold, like those who are with us today—Ottobock, a leading innovator in prosthetics; and Essilor, the world's largest manufacturer of ophthalmic lenses—to deliver quality, affordable products to more low- and middle-income countries.

And with our multilateral partners at UNICEF and the World Health Organization, we must ramp up support for national governments seeking to adopt global standards and access critical supply chains.

We at USAID remain committed to a world where all people are afforded equal opportunity and access. It is because of the dedication and ingenuity of this community that we are able to imagine such a world.

I hope you will join us as we continue to improve access to assistive products for the nearly one billion people in need.

I thank you.

Last updated: January 14, 2022

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