Robert McLaren 2023 AT Scholar
In preparation for the 2023 ATIA Conference we asked distinguished education journalist Mike Archer to interview our two British Assistive Technology Scholars. Here are his reports.
Robert McLaren is Head of Health and Accessibility at the think tank Policy Connect and manages the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology.
In the second of our scholars’ profiles for 2022, Mick Archer speaks to Robert McLaren, Head of Assistive and Accessible Technology at Policy Connect
In January Robert flies to Orlando, Florida to attend the Assistive Technology Industry Association’s (ATIA) annual convention. One of 20 or so virtual scholars in 2021, he’s been chosen to experience the real thing in 2023.
‘I found ATIA 2021 helpful and interesting,’ he says. ‘One of the things that is helpful for me is to take part and listen to sessions that focus on how AT works within a classroom setting. Often I’m dealing at the level of services and how they work. I think it’s important to go into the detail of the specific strategies that people are using with their technology. It doesn’t have an immediate policy implication but feeds one’s general understanding’.
The APPG AT
Policy Connect provides the secretariat for several APPGs: informal cross-party groups run by and for parliamentarians. APPGs often involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.
The APPG AT was launched at the Speaker’s House in the New Palace of Westminster in March 2017. It aims to disseminate knowledge, generate debate and facilitate engagement on assistive technology amongst members of both Houses of Parliament. As well as parliamentarians it has a burgeoning list of organisations, institutions and companies supporting its aims.
Robert joined Policy Connect shortly after the launch. But not from university or a similar policy role, as some might think. In fact, his career path began at the sharp end of disability. Dyslexic, he struggled with writing assignments at school.
‘My experience was being able to write a couple of words that were not very legible. And then handing something back and them saying it’s not finished,’ he recalls. He says that if he went back there now he believes his experience would be broadly the same. What’s changed is not his ability to produce writing with pen and paper. ‘What’s changed is the tools that I have and the environment in which I am able to work’.
As with many others, his school experience put him off higher education. It wasn’t until he was in his early twenties that he decided he should try university. ‘I didn’t have the grades to get in so I did a one-year Access course,’ he explains. ‘At that time I had a laptop and all the written work you did was outside of class. It was a bit like university: the class was a lecture and you took some notes or not and then you would write an essay. That kind of helped me see that maybe I could do it.’
And do it he did. He completed a degree in philosophy at King’s College, London and thanks to a Disabled Students’ Allowance discovered assistive technology. He recalls using text vocalisation, dictation and mind-mapping software and the huge difference they made.
‘Assistive technology was a bit of a revelation for me, in terms of my being able to do my own work at university. So I became interested in it from that point of view. I was also developing an interest in policy. It was around that time that changes were being made to the Disabled Students’ Allowance programme. So I both wanted to work in AT but also explore what policy was. At the time I wasn’t sure what it would mean to do a job in that area.’
After leaving university Robert’s first step was to immerse himself in AT. He was impressed by LexAble’s Global AutoCorrect and contacted the company’s founder Neil Cottrell to ask if he could do an internship. He learnt more about the company and the product and produced a short report about its potential uses.
While at LexAble he heard about Diversity and Ability, a disabled-led social enterprise supporting neurodiverse and disabled learners in education and the workplace. He applied to become one of its trainers. He also did a PGC in Teaching Adults with Specific Learning Difficulties at London Metropolitan so that he could become a study skills tutor and was elected to be the Assistive Technology Officer on the Executive of ADSHE, the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education.
By now he was more than ready for his next role. To date he says he’d been ‘dipping his toe into policy’ but while chatting to his predecessor Katherine Perry at a conference he learnt about Policy Connect and the APPG. Shortly after she moved to Europe and Robert applied for the vacant post.
Robert started at Policy Connect in September 2017. In June’s General Election, the Conservatives under Theresa May had lost their parliamentary majority. Policy making was in disarray. Robert’s first task was to recover some of the momentum evident at the APPG’s launch.
‘Lots of it was new. It was great to learn about parliament, about the work of parliamentarians and to work in a new environment,’ he says. ‘I hadn’t worked in any kind of office before, for one thing. I hadn’t worked at a think tank. So it was an exciting time.’ He embarked on a strategic plan to use the APPG’s parliamentary events to help engage with government and to use the government engagement to help set the agenda for future events.
Reflecting on the APPG’s first four years he says its main achievement has been raising the profile of assistive and accessible technology in parliament, with policy-makers and within government. Progress here has meant that it can now work with policy-makers on specific policy initiatives. He cites the example of AT’s inclusion in the 2019 Education Technology strategy.
‘We were able to translate the broad enthusiasm for AT into specific policy commitments, and that, of course, relies upon understanding what’s going on on the ground and what would work,’ he explains.
More recently it has been the National Disability Strategy that has benefited from this approach. ‘Policy Connect worked with the Disability Unit to inform the strategy around assistive and accessible technology,’ Robert explains. ‘So it includes a new ambition to make the UK the most accessible place in the world to live and work with technology.’ Specific policy commitments are peppered throughout the Strategy, but it’s the flagship commitment to explore the case for developing a world-leading Centre for Assistive and Accessible Technology that he picks out.
The role of the Centre has yet to be determined but the National Disability Strategy commits to developing it ‘in dialogue with disabled people, business and the public sector’. It also outlines some possibilities.
‘For example, it talks about the centre exploring new models of provision including lifelong provision. That very much answers a point that has been raised frequently within the APPG,’ Robert says. ‘So a key idea, given as an illustration within the strategy, is of a Centre working to improve access to AT in a way that is not confined by departmental or research boundaries but starts from the individual.’
Robert is trying to develop his own thinking around this by speaking to stakeholders and experts, gaining insights into what’s currently working and what isn’t. ‘I don’t have a fixed view at this point in time,’ he says. ‘I’m continuing to refine my thoughts as I take in more. But I suppose one thing I’m thinking about is how can the centre both operate at a strategic level to transform people’s access without being an access point. So rather than individuals going to some building called the Centre could the Centre be something that drives change but also not fall into the trap of seeming removed from people’s everyday lives and just putting out papers.’
He’s convinced the right model will be found. ‘I really think it can be done. I think that by working very much in collaboration with disabled people and existing services and organisations in the AT sector a centre can be very much active but not try to do it all itself. It can be very much felt on the ground, be understood and get buy-in from the sector, without trying to replace or duplicate anything that’s currently effective.’ A progress report is scheduled for the summer of 2022.
It’s a conundrum that will no doubt be in the forefront of Robert’s mind during his time in Orlando. Back in London he is looking forward to a fourth person joining Policy Connect’s Assistive and Accessible Technology team. He’s buoyant about the team’s growth.
‘It reflects the support we’ve received from the sector and the opportunity that we see to make change over the next period. It’s, therefore, Policy Connect’s desire to absolutely make the most of that and to increase our capacity to work on Assistive and Accessible Technology and then continue to seek support for that work.’