The Global Disability Summit – it happened!

At 4am on the morning of the 13th July, I woke and realised I was scared. Mixed with my fear though was a  calmer influence, a growing confidence that the Disability Innovation Summit might just go well, possibly even really well.

In less than 5 hours we would welcome some of the leading thinkers in disability and innovation to a stage at Here East, London. We were sold out, and our audience was going to be a diverse mix. Were we really going to pull this off?

The Disability Innovation Summit was the first public event we, the Global Disability Innovation Hub, had held. My mind turned over: Would people get what we are trying to do? Would they see the magic in the middle? Would they want to come together to break down the traditional boundaries between academic institutions, corporates, charities, NGO’s, and disabled people? Could we deliver something new, something we would be proud of?

A shot of the audience at the opening session of the Disability Innovation Summit showing rows of people watching the stage.
The first day at the Global Disability Innovation Hub’s first Disability Innovation Summit held at Here East during the World Para Athletics Championships London 2017 on Thursday July 13, 2017.

The GDI Hub

The GDI Hub (Global Disability Innovation Hub) is a partnership project led by The London Legacy Development Corporation and UCL. The founding partners include Loughborough University, the London College of Fashion, Saddlers Wells theatre, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Helen Hamlyn Center for Design at the Royal College of Art.

We work together with local communities, academics, experts NGOs to drive innovation, co-design and creative thinking in the field of disability.o things differently and we want everyone to have the opportunity to be a part of this.

The programme

The summit kicked off with Lord Chris Holmes (Chair of the Disability Innovation Board), Vicki Austin (Director, GDI Hub) and myself (Academic Director, GDI Hub) setting the scene. We explained the origins of the GDI Hub. How it has grown out of the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy from London 2012. In fact, it is only possible because, from that legacy a new Academic and Cultural District will exist on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The GDI hub is the first collaboration between these partners. However, the scene we were setting, articulated so well by Vicki was that we are all different, but that together we have the change to make real difference to the lives of the 1 billion disabled people in the world. Vicki paraphrased our Manifesto and a lighter note, Chris kindly taught us how to sign Donald Trump and we all laughed.

Lord Chris Holmes MBE teaching the audience of the Disability Innovation Summit the sign for Donald Trump during his opening address. On his left the British Sign Language interpreter is copying him.
Lord Holmes signs Donald Trump during in his opening address to the Disability Innovation Summit

When I took to the stage I was genuinely struck by the number of people looking back. I’ve talked to much larger audiences, but none that have looked so diverse in terms of background. Looking around the room I spotted the part-time super hero Jess Thom, Charlotte V. McClain-Nhlapo from the World Bank, Chapel Khasnabis from the World Health Organisation and Hector Minto from Microsoft. I was so grateful to each person for giving up their time to share the summit with us.

I announced the new MSc Disability, Design and Innovation, which we are very proud to be rolling out in 2018. The MSc will be delivered by UCL, Loughborough London and London College of Fashion. It will give people the breadth of skills needed to tackle the problems facing those with disabilities but also develop new products and services which have been inspired by disability. Just as we have nature inspired design we will have disability inspired design. Just as sustainability became key to design teaching; gender studies became a mainstream topic in social science and technology became ubiquitous something we all could use. So too, disability will become an embedded component of our curriculum inspiring, we hope a global movement and maybe even a revolution.

And that was the first half hour done.

What followed was a brilliant programme that mixed arts and science, policy and practice, academics with corporates. The full programme can be found here.  Speakers included:

  • Charlotte V McClain-Nhlape (Global Disability Advisor, World Bank)
  • Tom Watt-Smith (Producer, Big Life Fix) & Ross Atkin (Designer, Big Life Fix)
  • Chapal Khasnabis (Assistive Technology Lead, World Health Organisation)
  • Neil Heslop (Chief Executive, Leonard Cheshire Disability)
  • Jess Markt (Disability Sport & Intergration, International Committee for the Red Cross)
  • Fredrick Ouku (Entrepreneur, Riziki Source)
  • Penny Mordaunt MP (Minister of State for Disabled People, Health & Work)
  • Tim Hollingsworth OBE (Chief Executive, British Paralympic Association)
  • Dan Brooke (Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Chanel 4)
  • David Constantine MBE (Co-founder & designer, Motivation)

For me there were so many highlights that over a week on, I find myself remembering a great line, or the results of the breakout sessions as I go about my day. There are though recurring highlights.

The highlights

In first place is Leena Haque standing on stage and doing a brilliant job at explaining her world. A world where she thinks in pictures. She starts nervously, clinging to her trusty dinosaur. It gives her strength, grounds her and within a minute she has hit her stride. Explaining the images on screen for those who can’t see them and in doing so explaining her world.

 “Autism: a bit like Alice in Wonderland meets Guitanamo Bay” – Leena Haque, BBC

Leena’s story is a familiar one for people with autism. School believed she couldn’t read, and she couldn’t until she discovered comic books. When there were pictures, words made more sense.  When she left University she struggled to get a job. But through BBC’s Project Cape (Creating a Positive Environment) she has been given the right support to thrive. The CAPE project is  the BBC’s initiative to improve the support given to neurodivergent employees.

Leena Haque holding close to her chest her trusty dinosaur and beaming at the camera at the Disability Innovation Summit
Leena Haque and her trusty dinosaur stealing the show at the Disability Innovation Summit

In second place is BadBoyBilly. This is an interactive artwork  we commissioned ahead of the Disability Innovation Summit. We had no idea how brilliant the final piece would be. Jason Wilsher-Mills is a digital artist who ran a workshop of  young wheelchair users. He helped them to sketch their experiences on iPads. These images are combined into a five foot sculpture, which is decorated with badges. These badges are triggers for a freely downloadable mobile application. When you point the phone or tablet at the trigger you see BadBoyBilly come to life and a story of one of the young people who helped to create BadBoyBilly is brought to life. It was a hit.

BadBoyBilly is 5ft tall and is a large bog on an orange spacehopper. he is wearing callipers on his legs and braces to hold up his bright blue, patterned shorts. He is grinning from ear to ear. His creator, Jason Wilsher-Mills, is holding up a tablet to demonstrate the augmented reality aspects which tell the stories of the young people who inspired the creation of BadBoyBilly
Jason Wilsher-Mills showcasing the augmented reality application, which makes BadBoyBilly come to life, to his assistant Laura his assistant Laura.

In third place, for me was the final session on ‘delivering impact’.

I have followed the great work of David Constantine and his team at Motivation for some time, and it was a genuine honour to introduce him and hear the story of Motivation first hand. How three people set out to deliver affordable wheelchairs. What they ended up doing was developing a model of delivering the right wheelchair to people, working with partners including the WHO to develop standards for fitting wheelchairs and teaching people to use them. Ultimately realising they were about changing lives, not simply providing wheelchairs.

Ariam Mogos, the Learning Lead from the UNICEF Office of Innovation then took to the stage to talk about the Innovation Fund . Disabled children are far more likely to be out of education and UNICEF is fighting this by identifying bottlenecks, innovating solutions, scaling these and ultimately helping more children get a good quality education.

Finally, Michael Vermeersch (Digital Inclusion Lead, Microsoft) told a very personal story of how at Microsoft he can fully declare his disability and it is seen only in a positive light.  His impassioned speech which not only showcased the assistive technology advances that are occurring at Microsoft, but also the change in attitude. All disabled people are problem solvers he declared and I really couldn’t agree more.

“Now that I can be myself, I can be my best” – Michael Vermeersch (Digital Inclusion Lead, Microsoft)

I believe the Disability Innovation Summit was a move to a new model of disability, one which has disabled people, their resilience and problem solving abilities as core. One which breaks down traditional divides and looks to bring everyone in on the conversation. One that looks to innovation and appropriate technologies and one that will enable people to realise the value and abilities of those who are disabled.

A last thought

As is often the case it was people and their openness which made the Disability Innovation Summit such a success. I am proud to have been a part of the team which hosted this, but in all honestly we were just the curators. The magic happened because people are brilliant and given the right space will create the what the world needs to reduce the huge inequalities faced by those whose abilities are at odds with the society we have built.

The most striking thing for me at the Disability Innovation Summit was the number and quality of  connections people made. An example. Jason Wilshire-Mills, who knew nothing of Autism before the Summit will now create a piece of augmented reality art which will bring to life the dinosaur Leena Haque sees in her mind.