Jane Stevens is Wigan Council’s Head of Assistive Technology, a role that has come a long way since she first moved into the field in 2005. With a background in mental health practice, she connected immediately with the vision of a future in which technology would give people greater control over their own lives and independence.
“In the early days, assistive technology meant wearing a pendant with an emergency button,” Jane recalls. Now, though, Wigan embraces the challenge of trialling new technologies, learning from failures, and ultimately continuing to shape itself into a leading authority in the adoption of new technology and systems.
“We have a culture of trying,” explains Jane, “which is followed by everyone up to the CEO and down to every individual member of my team.”
Wigan’s approach involves listening to the people who matter most; what are the real needs and concerns of a mum looking after her autistic son? Staff and support-providing organisations, too, need to embrace adopting new innovations.
“We take our best products to service managers to get their thoughts, and always work collaboratively with providers. Technology doesn’t work in isolation,” says Jane. “It can’t. We don’t want it to feel like an added pressure on busy staff – if it doesn’t clearly provide a benefit to them and to the customer, if they don’t get behind it, then it simply won’t work.”
Technological solutions need to be integrated, not simply added; two years before Amazon and the NHS first collaborated, insights like these allowed Wigan to become the first local authority in the UK to realise the potential of Alexa technology, and this spark of inspiration helped a woman with multiple sclerosis to live independently in her own home.
Wigan brought together its repertoire of innovative technologies and approach of suiting support to each individual, and created the Internet of Things Bungalow: a living showcase for the power of various personal assistive technologies.
One of the more recent additions to the Bungalow is Brain in Hand, an on-demand system providing people with access to detailed, personalised support from their smartphone, and this too was implemented in Wigan’s trademark style.
Jane outlines the process: “We took Brain in Hand to Brookfield, a community reablement service for individuals discharged from hospital or living in the community with the aim of reducing their likelihood of readmission. We immediately got buy-in to Brain in Hand from Brookfield’s staff, so we suspected it could be a success, but even I was shocked at the impact we saw it make.”
Brookfield staff – who provide support to individuals with complex mental health needs, dual diagnoses, and personality disorders – collaborated with the Brain in Hand team to integrate the system into their service. Individuals who the team thought would engage with the technology and take ownership of their recovery were selected; staff were trained to introduce them to the system and provide ongoing support to ensure the best chance of success.
“Not everyone connected with Brain in Hand, but we always expect that,” says Jane. “For those who did, the impact was huge.
“One individual with a history of self-harm – and who had just been discharged from two months on an acute mental health ward – was given Brain in Hand to help her manage her emotions and cope better in new daily living situations. She’s now been able to step down from Brookfield’s services and hasn’t needed to access emergency services or a crisis team, which she previously would have done. That’s a phenomenal success.”
Based on this success, Wigan will be trialling Brain in Hand within their Homeless, Drugs, and Rehabilitation programme, which will be another first. Jane hopes that the use of technology will only continue to grow:
“We want all of our local authority and NHS staff to be able to harness the results that technology can deliver. During every self-assessment we now ask whether the individual has considered technology as a means of support, and provide a list of suggestions across our twelve domains of care; equally, when staff are supporting a person looking for help, we make sure that they consider this to help the person make decisions and take control of their life.”
Of the thousands of products and services investigated by the council, and the hundreds taken to trial, only a select few will be successful. Yet Jane’s certain that it’s worth it.
“When you see the difference the right technology can make to people’s real lives,” she says, “you know that the failures have more than paid off. It’s incredible how far assistive technology has come in the past fifteen years, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
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