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On Accessibility and Technology
Adam Pottle shares his thoughts on innovations meant for the disabled community
Over the last decade, engineers, computer scientists, and technology firms have taken it upon themselves to create what they see as solutions to problems of accessibility. Last year, a team from UCLA created a glove meant to be worn by American Sign Language users that translates signs into spoken English. In 2017, the Swiss company Scewo created a wheelchair that climbs stairs, a design based on their previous 2015 prototype, then called Scalevo. Also, in 2017, the Vycle, a bicycle that traverses walls vertically and is considered an alternative to staircases and elevators, was invented by a student at the Royal College of Art.
Several problems arise with these devices. First of all, they are almost always created by non-disabled people. The UCLA team creating the glove does not include a single Deaf member, and of the thirty-one team members featured on Scewo’s website, not a single one appears to be a wheelchair user. Ditto the Vycle, which requires one to use one’s legs.
Second, these solutions are meant for individuals; in doing so, they ignore broader accessibility problems. Our goal is to make the world itself more accessible by minimizing social obstacles, such as lack of Sign Language interpreters or visual communicative means, staircases, broken elevators, and impassable passageways. Inventions like these put the responsibility of accessibility on the individual, rather than on those who build and maintain social obstacles.
"If the world were more accessible, such inventions would be unnecessary."
Third, these devices ignore the disabled community’s economic realities. Very few of us can afford technologically advanced consumer products. As an example, Scewo requires a fee of 1,000 Swiss Francs ($1,200 USD) just to reserve a wheelchair, to say nothing of its full price, which starts at 36,000 Swiss Francs, or about $40,000 USD. Companies such as Scewo are not so much interested in solving accessibility problems as they are in making a profit; in fact, if the world were more accessible, such inventions would be unnecessary.
These items cannot be considered innovations or advances; they do not advance anything and, in the case of the Sign Language glove, are entirely redundant. Voice-to-text software already exists on our smartphones to help facilitate communication. These devices simply add to the problem of accessibility by using shiny trinkets to distract the world from achieving real, meaningful change. When we advocate for more accessible spaces, people can point to the Scewo website and say, “Why don’t you just buy a stair-climbing wheelchair?” When we ask for Sign Language interpretation or for our friends and family members to learn Sign, they can bring up the glove and say, “Why don’t you just wear this, so I don’t have to learn?”
It appears that nondisabled people will do everything they can to avoid confronting the truth that disabled people face every day. They will ignore how inaccessible the world is, and if they cannot ignore it, they will distract from it. The people creating these products believe they are being helpful and inventive, but in truth, they are obscuring the real problems of accessibility by promoting these products as viable solutions while at the same time suggesting, as has happened throughout all of history, that nondisabled people must control the solutions to inaccessibility and thus control the lives and narratives of disabled people.
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These devices are a signal to disabled people that our perspectives do not matter.
This approach to accessibility demonstrates a deep and disturbing contempt for disabled people. The people creating these products have excluded us from conversations about devices that are supposed to help us, likely because they realize that we would cut them off before they get started. These people see us as undiscerning consumers meant to accept these devices without question; they want us to respond with gratitude—in fact, they demand gratitude—when they present these devices, and when we question them, we are seen as ungrateful. These devices, as with many aspects of disabled life, lock us into a conversation where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
And that’s the point. As long as this cycle of conversation continues to distract us and the rest of the world from discussing real, viable change that makes the world more accessible, nothing will get done. Stairs will remain in place. Our friends and family will refuse to learn Sign Language. Public spaces will remain inhospitable and unsafe.
Nondisabled innovators need to let go of their egos and their profit drives and allow disabled people to take charge of the accessibility conversation. Any true progression in accessibility must be led by disabled people. To that end, workable accessibility solutions already exist: ramps, elevators, tactile paving, support dogs, Sign Language interpretation, captioning, Braille, audiobooks, relaxed spaces, accessible washrooms. The difficulty lies in making them more widespread and incorporating them more smoothly—for instance, consistently having ramps at the main entrance of buildings instead of at the back door.
Nondisabled people will resist this idea because they are deeply invested in maintaining normalcy. We have only to look at how we have responded to the pandemic to see not only how desperately people want to return to “normal,” but how dangerous “normal” can be. Because so many people are not willing to wear masks or become vaccinated, they endanger others and, in some cases, die themselves.
"The people creating these products have excluded us from conversations about devices that are supposed to help us..."
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For centuries, disabled people have known that maintaining rigid normalcy does not work. It creates exclusion and allows harmful ideas to perpetuate. Accessibility, on the other hand, does work. It helps everyone, for it rests on a foundation of empathy.
If the tech industry and its partners in business and government can show true allyship and allow disabled people to lead the accessibility conversation, the amount of positive change will accelerate, and that will have a dramatic domino effect. Disabled people will be freer, physically and mentally, and with their freedom, they will be able to fully use their imaginations to explore ever more innovative ideas.
Right now, thousands of disabled innovators are creating never-before-seen products and solutions to a myriad of problems, including accessibility, climate change, governance, and hunger. They are hampered, though, by inaccessibility and lack of support.
The world can no longer afford to ignore us.