Future of Access

Tech & Disability: The Future of Access

The Future is Now!

Brain-Controlled_Prosthetic_ArmWithin the past few decades, technology has advanced to a point where science fiction has become science fact. From the internet to smartphones, we have seen a dramatic change in the way technology has affected our daily lives. This is perhaps most apparent when you look at the multitude of ways technology is helping increase accessibility options afforded to people with disabilities and special needs. We have wheelchairs that don’t just help you move from point A to point B, they can help you stand. Cochlear implants can repair some forms of hearing loss. New medications are helping people with mental health disorders to live full and productive lives. And successful tests are being conducted, allowing individuals to use robotic limbs that can be controlled by a person’s thoughts. These developments are new and their implications are exciting, but we should take a moment to examine why these advancements are so important and what possible pitfalls we could fall into as we move forward.

Before we move on, let’s identify the three different types of tech out there:

  1. Medical and biotech – EX: Advances in medication, surgical procedures, prosthetics, and both physical & psychological therapies.
  2. Personal assistive devices/software – EX: Wheelchairs, hearing aids, adaptive communication devices, self-driving cars, accessible mobile apps.
  3. Architectural/Urban Development – EX: Ramps, elevators, support rails, accessible pedestrian signals, specialized street signs.

What do they all have in common? Their primary goal is to provide ACCESS or SAFETY for those who otherwise may not be unable to fully or safely participate in certain activities. For example, an individual who is blind can cross the street by themselves, but it’s not always SAFE, which is why an audible pedestrian signal helps him or her to cross safely. Another example would be if a wheelchair user has a job on the fourth floor of an office building, they can use an elevator to gain ACCESS to their desired floor. These are existing examples that have been an undeniable benefit to those who utilize them, but as new accessible technologies present themselves, we must take a moment to think about how they will impact our community.

Consider This…

Disability iconsWe can easily become distracted by the shiny new toys that are coming out of the tech world, but sometimes we need to pump the breaks and be mindful of how they could affect the lives of their human users. Some of this technology is fairly straight forward and will have little to no negative impact on a user’s everyday life, such as ramps, assistive comm. devices, and accessibility options on mobile devices. However, as we begin to explore more invasive technologies such as bionic eyes and mind-controlled prosthesis, we should tread carefully about our expectations for this tech and keep in constant communication with those for whom this technology is being developed. We should never assume that people with disabilities should or will widely adopt these technologies as part of their daily lives. In the end, their use will be a personal choice and those decisions should be respected.

We have already seen a debate within the community of individuals who are Deaf, deaf, or experience hearing loss (Deaf spelled with a capital “D” refers to a group of individuals who practice ASL and identify with Deaf culture). The growing popularity of cochlear implants has created a debate over whether or not the surgically implanted device is being identified as the “obvious choice” for those without their sense of hearing. Critics like Ruthie Jordan (an activist who identifies as Deaf) have even criticized the medical community of profiting off of parents of children with hearing loss, by implying that using a cochlear implant is the only “legitimate option.” This simply isn’t true, as many individuals who are Deaf or experience hearing loss have gone on to live full lives without a sense of hearing or an oral communication system. Medications and surgeries can be accompanied by a host of side effects and cultural pitfalls, but the positives could outweigh the negatives. Parents of children with disabilities and special needs must consider their options carefully and make informed decisions on behalf of their loved ones. If your child is old enough, be sure to involve them in the decision as well and gauge how they would feel about the changes they would experience in their everyday lives.

For those who are making the choice for themselves, we recommend you do as much research as possible and listen to your doctors. If you know of someone who is using the same type of equipment or medication you’re considering, ask them about their experience. Some procedures are irreversible or could cause dramatic changes to the way you experience the world around you, particularly if the technology is still being tested. The more information you have, the better.

Personal Choice and Unique Experience

ChoiceOne of the best parts of these technological advances, is they provide more choices for how people want to live their lives and access the world around them. A power wheelchair may be a modern marvel, but some individuals don’t want to be reliant on constantly charging its battery or deal with the complex, continual maintenance. For those individuals, a standard wheelchair could work just fine. Remember, it’s all about being SAFE and ACCESSIBLE. As long as your choice meets those two requirements and it doesn’t conflict with your personal values, you’re well on your way to better living through technology… IF you have the money that is… As they say, the bottom line is the dollar sign and when it comes to accessible equipment, it’s no different.  Some of the technology we have mentioned is not covered by insurance and therefore may not be affordable for everyone. So, before you rush out to acquire your brand new bionic arm, be sure to check out the price tag first.

We hope to cover these types of advancements in more detail in future blog articles. Perhaps shining a spotlight on a particular device or medication to explore its effectiveness and how they work. But first, we want to know what you have to say. What do you think about these remarkable advancements in technology and accessibility? Are you worried? Excited? Please share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below and thanks for reading!

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