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Calls for easier access to communication aids for disabled groups

There are calls for easier access to assistive technology that gives some disabled people a voice.

Sophia Corlett, 10, is autistic and has been using a customised iPad with a communication app to communicate her needs, feelings and pains for the past seven months.

"Recently Sophia broke her wrist and that's always been one of my real concerns ... that she wasn't able to express herself and how she was feeling and especially a physical pain," her mum Rebekah Corlett said.

"We had the talker and she was able to use it to say I feel 'ouch' and she was able to use it to point to the area and also that she felt anxious in the environment."

Mrs Corlett said being able to understand how her daughter was feeling in that moment was "really helpful" and having the ability to communicate removed Sophia's stress.

Once approved for getting the technology funded, Sophia had her device in a matter of weeks, but her parents say the 18-month wait to be assessed was too long.

"When she was at the perfect level to take on a device and communicate," Mrs Corlett said.

"I'd like to see it available to children much earlier and maybe have an assessment before the age of five so they can start school with a device that will help them in those early stages," she said.

Mrs Corlett said she wonders how fluent Sophia would be with the device if she had it from age five.

"It's like freedom, and I saw it quite instantly, it was like a weight lifted off her shoulders, like finally she was being understood," she said.

The Ministry of Health gives charitable trust TalkLink $1.85m annually to assess 3000 people, and spends $1m on assistive communication devices from its $90m equipment modification services budget, deputy director of general disability Adri Isbister said in a statement.

Ms Isbister said disabled people that fit the 'urgent' category for assessment are seen within two to four weeks, while people with 'challenging behaviours' are assessed within six to nine months and those categorised as 'non-urgent' can take up to two years to be assessed.

A spokesperson for TalkLink said the waitlist would be longer if it didn't fundraise.

Ms Isbister stated that the Ministry "acknowledges" there's pressure on the system and is investigating what it can do to fix that with TalkLink.

"TalkLink is working closely with their counterparts in education to look at having more therapists working in education trained to provide assessments for those children with less complex communication needs.

"This approach is already progressing well in some areas like Auckland and Christchurch," she said.

The Ministry of Education and ACC are also funding assistive communication technology.

Speech-language therapist Shannon Hennig said there's a big gap between those that need the technology and those that have it in New Zealand.

Ms Hennig said she sees students in schools that aren't living up to their full potential because they don't have access to communication technology on a weekly basis.

She said all qualifying assessments should be completed in three months, ongoing training and support should be a focus and society needs to understand how to communicate with people using assistive technology.

"Both families and teachers are left with this huge gap of like how do I teach language in this very different way... without someone on that journey, some people don't meet their potential and that's after years of building frustration," she said.

Ms Hennig said long wait lists mean issues that have built up during the waiting period have to be worked through, whereas quicker access is more straightforward.

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said increasing funding for assistive communication technology and assessments is a critical need.

"It provides a voice to those people that may not actually have a voice," Mr Dougan said.

Disability Issues Minister Carmel Sepuloni said Cabinet has approved a programme of work that's already underway investigating what "being truly accessible in New Zealand" looks like and assistive technology is a part of that.

"I'm really interested in the assistive technology space... That accessibility line of work is going to be crucial to us seeing more seriousness applied to and more focus put on what assistive technology looks like moving forward and how we can support that as a Government," she said.

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    The autism community says too many are waiting too long for access to a fundamental right. Source: 1 NEWS