person using BlueAssist

Disability Innovations: A global system of inclusive communication

Disability Innovations is a blog series that gathers some of the most interesting new products and services that aim to make disabled people’s lives easier. We hope it will inspire more innovation in the disability field.

What is BlueAssist?

BlueAssist is a free-to-use system of communication to help disabled people engage with their community. BlueAssist aims to help anyone for whom communication is hard, whatever the reason, to engage freely (and for free!) with those around them to communicate their needs and is a simple way for disabled people to ask for assistance when they are out and about. Write your questions on the BlueAssist Card or app, such as ‘Please can you tell me how to get to the station’ or ‘Please look at me when talking so I can lipread’. Present your card to a trained member of staff, or member of the public, to make your questions and requests known to them. They are then able to quickly and easily understand what is needed and know how best to support you.

What’s behind the idea?

When you’re out and about and you get lost, or encounter a problem you ask those around you for help. But if you have a difficulty communicating this may not be something you can easily do. People may not be able to understand what you’re asking for, or may even ignore you because they don’t know how to help. Research estimates that only 1% of those travelling by train who need assistance actually ask for it. The idea behind BlueAssist is to create a universally recognisable symbol, which disabled people can use to get help and support.

At present there is no comprehensive ‘Blue Badge’ equivalent for people with communication and learning difficulties. BlueAssist want to change this, so that every person who finds it hard to ask for things, or communicate when out and about can ask for help to be as independent as possible. The BlueAssist symbol is there to help the public understand that the person asking for help may not be able to communicate easily and to provide an effective and mutually beneficial system of communication.

The idea began in Belgium in 2000, where the original BlueAssist card was trialled with a group of people with learning disabilities to help them to travel independently and ask for help when needed. In 2013 the team from Belgium presented BlueAssist at the Autism Show in London, and Barbara Dewar, now Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of BlueAssist UK Ltd was so impressed with the system that she bought it back to the UK and launched a charity in the same name. The BlueAssist movement has now spread worldwide to the USA, Holland and Germany.

How does it work?

What started life as a simple card has now developed into a family of different apps to make the system more practical and easier to use, although the original BlueAssist card is still going strong, and available to download online for free! The BlueAssist Light app is an smartphone version of the original card, and can be used to show messages on screen. With the BlueAssist Light version you get access to two messages, one a general request for help which you can connect to an emergency telephone number, the second a message you can edit change as often as you want.

phone using the BlueAssist app
Phone using BlueAssist app

An important part of the BlueAssist ethos is that the basic system is free to anyone who wants to use it, and as such the BlueAssist Light app is free to download from Google Play or the Apple Store. However, the creators of BlueAssist have also developed a subscription based version of the app, which offers additional functions, such as multiple pages, and a range of messages and images. In addition to the full version of the BlueAssist app , they have also developed 3 additional apps, which can be both used together or in isolation.

The first is a Calendar app which uses visual cues to create clear daily plans and outline different activities and when they are due to happen. The second is a Photo phone book, which is a pictorial phone book, to create an easy way to call contacts. Numbers can also be barred at particular times, for example when staff go off shift, to help the user know when it is the right time to call. Finally the Photo Gallery app helps users not only to share their experiences but also to help sequence tasks. They have even be used to create albums for pictorial shopping lists, or visual cues for what to pack from swimming, and which order to put clothes on when getting dressed. All 4 apps plus cloud storage are available for a small monthly fee of £10.92.

Who are they working with?

Since its UK launch BlueAssist has received widespread support from disability organisations such as Mencap, The National Autistic Society, and has even been trialled at Scope’s own Beaumont College. They are also working with 28 train operators across the UK to adopt BlueAssist, including the Department for Transport and First TransPennine Express, who have launched the system with BlueAssist cards available at all their stations. Aside from transport, BlueAssist are also working with museums. And even the Houses of Parliament, to aid assistance and create ‘do’s and don’ts’ guidance sheets for staff, to help assist someone who presents a BlueAssist card.

The big dream for BlueAssist is to become a globally recognised symbol for anyone needing assistance to be able to confidently ask anyone around them for help and get it. They want the system to be simple and easy for everyone to use, not just trained staff, but also members of the public more widely. If disabled people feel confident to ask for help, and the public feel confident to give it, then everyone’s a winner!

Why we love it!

The social model of disability is really important to Scope, and we love how BlueAssist is helping to remove barriers in society that restrict communication for disabled people. Everyone needs help at some point, whether it is finding the right bus station or asking for directions, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get! BlueAssist both facilitates and promotes independence for disabled people, by giving them a really simple tool to help them communicate. Plus it may even help prevent some of those ‘awkward moments’ we saw as part of Scope’s End the Awkward campaign along the way!

This blog is for information only. Scope does not endorse this product or service. We try to make sure our information is up to date and accurate at the time of publishing.

To tell us about a Disability Innovation, please email innovation@scope.org.uk.