If the ACE Centre goes, something of the UK goes with it, warns Peter Fowler
You can always judge a society by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens. It’s an understanding we have had instilled in us by both the dominant Christian faith ("Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth") and by a centuries-old string of philosophers and political thinkers.
We may have absorbed the Darwinist truths – the notion of the "survival of the fittest" – but we have always held on to the central tenet that what distinguishes humanity is its care and its love. We have always preferred the Good Samaritan to Attila The Hun; we understand what happened in The Lord of the Flies, but we know we have to transcend such brutalities. Without love, as the song goes, there is nothing.
Most people won’t have heard of The ACE Centre in Oxford, but, for a generation, it’s shone its own little light in the shadows of this discussion (see "Test for Cameron on Oxford ACE Centre closure"). At one level, it’s been terribly modern – a small bunch of people exploring possible applications utilising the new technologies. But at another, it’s been groundbreaking for its particular client group – those with multiple and profound communication difficulties. The child with extreme sensory impairments; the accident victim unable to move limbs; the person crippled by a stroke; the girl trapped in her own micro-world, unable to communicate with anyone because of some devastating condition.
Our society has always found it hard coping with this peripheral group of children and people. For the parents of a child with profound and complex problems, it can be a nightmare to work out which section of our servicing sectors is needed to help them: is it social services? Is it education? Is it the National Health Service? Is it a teacher – or an occupational therapist? Is it a speech therapist? Is it a physiotherapist?
When personal computing became a reality rather than a possibility, in the 1980s, it was evident to those involved with those with really special needs that an avenue of opportunity was opening up, a landscape that could be of immense benefit. And so, in an uncharacteristically bold British educational initiative, as part of the then-new Microelectronics in Education Programme (MEP), the ACE Centre was developed, in Oxford, to explore the uses of these new platforms for those with communication difficulties caused by sensory impairments. And here, from the start, the centre simply transcended the sectoral divides at play with their community, and brought together a small team including teachers, technologists and speech and occupational therapists.
The team explored the modifications that could be made to personal computing – involving, as examples, switch rather than keyboard access, allowing the user to control the computer with one finger, or even one tap of the head; or touch-screen boards that removed the need of the keyboard altogether; or early voice simulators, where instructions were ‘spoken’ rather than written. The centre’s work was rooted in the most effective practice: children were sent, usually by a local education authority in the early years, to be ‘assessed’ by the multidisciplinary team; and this resulted in a series of recommendations to the parents, or to the LEA, on the technologies that could be used to help the child be ‘included’ in the mainstream curriculum enjoyed by their peers.
ACE quickly became a byword not only in this country, but in Europe, for the sheer value and effectiveness of its work. The word spread; even those with the most complex impairments could be helped to communicate in a manner unprecedented in their lives. ACE was sought out for European programmes, developed important links with the Scandinavian countries; and not surprisingly its advocates included Stephen Hawking and others whose own lives had been dramatically improved by this by-product of personal computing.
The problem for ACE has always been the same. In the grander scheme of things, it deals with a tiny minority of the population. Its solutions are expensive, too, and local authorities have always found it difficult, even in easier economic climates, to justify the costs potentially incurred as a result of an ACE assessment, making it problematic to include the recommendations on a child’s Statement of Special Educational Need.
This cost, though, that falls on one public sector – education – has never ever been contextualised in the larger picture of the society as a whole – it is no accident that this country is so advanced in what is now called assistive technology, the very area in which ACE has played such a stunningly innovative role. The UK has world-leading companies pioneering this work and almost all of these have had significant connections with ACE.
So, as the cuts bite deeper, and the quangos are bonfired, and the educational technology initiatives – from MEP to BECTA, from ACE to the Communication Aids Programme of the Blair years – are jettisoned completely, ACE itself – the cornerstone of this British success story – is now facing closure.
True, prime minister David Cameron, answering a question from Oxford East MP Andrew Smith in the House of Commons last week, acknowledged the centre’s history and said ‘something ought to be done’; but there is a desperate need to ensure that this reply is no mere soundbite. Because if ACE goes, something in this country goes down with it. The age-old tradition that we, as a state, look after our weakest citizens; we care for them. We offer them, wherever we can, the opportunity of the most level of playing fields available for them. To include them in our society. To make them feel at home.
Peter Fowler is a retired professor of learning technology (at Liverpool John Moores University). In the late 1980s he was NCET’s national co-ordinator for special needs and, among other tasks, line managed the ACE Centre. You can follow him on Twitter – @peterfowler4