In my day job as Accessibility Consultant, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how to improve computer use for people with disabilities. Something that I reflect on a little less but am interested in exploring more are the ways in which technology, particularly smartphones and virtual assistants, have positively impacted my daily life, and can positively impact the lives of other people like me. Navigation, communication, utilities/reference, and productivity apps (including apps such as the Google search app) in particular are democratizing forces because they improve access to information. Unfortunately, the cost of the devices that run these applications is itself increasingly becoming a barrier to their adoption. This is one of the reasons why I’m working with the Global Shapers Community to develop a digital literacy class for people with disabilities focused on increasing the efficacy of smartphones and other digital tools among this group of people.
Connecting The Dots
Getting my first smartphone quite literally put a whole new world at my fingertips. It unlocked a sense of confidence, freedom, and autonomy I hadn’t previously experienced. I’d already been living independently in Brooklyn for a few years, but I felt isolated. I didn’t feel like I had many close friends, but I was also afraid to travel and explore independently. Even when traveling to places I’d been previously, I’d get disoriented and turned around. I’ve come to refer to this as geographic dyslexia, and while I’m not sure whether that’s a real diagnosable condition, it describes mine and others’ experiences succinctly. I’ve always connected with people online more easily than most people I met first in real life. For a long time, some of my closest friends came from AIM and MySpace (RIP). Being able to access information, people, and maps whenever I wanted, particularly while out and about, was a game changer. While I still periodically got lost, those moments became fewer and farther between and I no longer felt held back by not having anyone accompany me. From a young age, technology served as a connector for me. Getting my smartphone was merely a tipping point which not only helped me embrace my disability, but helped me understand what my purpose in this world could be. I wanted to help other people with disabilities understand that technology could help them too.
Some time had passed since I had graduated college. I had no promising career leads until my dad, a dentist, was talking to one of his patients about me and mentioned that I was interested in working with people with disabilities and technology. Neither me nor my dad had any idea what this would entail, but this man, who consulted at a day habilitation program for people with disabilities, had an idea. He arranged a meeting with me, the founder of this organization, and him. I remember it was cold and I was nervous, not only because this was such an intriguing opportunity, but because I would have to travel from Brooklyn to the Bronx on two subways and a bus, in order to pursue it. I left this meeting as a new volunteer for Services for the Developmentally Challenged, where I wore a wide variety of hats and after even more time passed, eventually developed and led a digital literacy workshop for the participants of that program. This brings me to where I am today. After attending a web development bootcamp in spring 2016 and spending the last two years software testing to ensure that websites and mobile applications can be used easily by people with disabilities, I find myself eager to get my “boots-on-the-ground” again.
That’s why, in July of 2018, I pitched a project to the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum comprising of a network of young people in their 20s and early 30s who create change globally by acting locally. The project is a new, mobile-first, digital literacy workshop inspired by those early experiences and the impact I could see I was having. But this time, instead of teaching to one organization, there is potential to reach a much broader audience.
As a person with a disability working in tech, I have a multifaceted perspective not only on the impact that technology can have on this population, but also on its limitations, drawbacks, and barriers to adoption. According to a World Economic Forum report: “The cost of advanced technologies is also plummeting. Consider just one example: a top-of-the-range drone cost $100,000 in 2007; in 2015 a model with similar specifications could be bought for $500. As technology becomes cheaper, world demand is being met at lower price points and fueling an explosion of devices with ever more connections” (World Economic Forum). But this ignores the fact that smartphones are getting increasingly expensive. Even with these devices being more powerful than they’ve ever been, a 2017 flagship smartphone cost 25% more than its 2012 equivalent, meanwhile, inflation of the US Dollar during that same period was only about 10% (Android Authority). This indicates that device manufacturers are artificially and unnecessarily raising the prices of these devices in order to increase their profit margins, making it more difficult for average consumers, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status who could arguably benefit the most from these tools, to acquire these devices.
We live in a time when it’s very easy to take for granted these computers that we carry in our pockets. It’s easy to complain that we spend too much time on them or about the damage that extended and long-term use may cause. But it’s just as easy to complain when the map won’t load or we missed an important call because we’re in a bad service area. So imagine what it’d be like being someone who can’t afford to own any of the devices they see so many people around them using so heavily. Imagine having difficulty communicating verbally, but not being able to afford a device that would allow you to communicate with other people and interact with the world around you more easily. Many industries and jobs rely on computers, but it’s much more difficult to learn and understand how to use them if you don’t own or otherwise have frequent access to one. The employment rate among people with disabilities is already lower than among those without, and a technological gap could make that even worse.
I understood the power of technology before I ever got my first smartphone. I knew that once I got one, feeling- being– more connected, would augment my life in a myriad of ways, but what I didn’t fully comprehend was that the number of ways in which it would improve my life would only increase over time. Technology gives people with disabilities tools and abilities our bodies and minds keep us from, which others often take for granted. The more readily available technology such as smartphones, tablets, and artificial intelligence becomes, the easier it will be for someone who has difficulty communicating verbally to obtain an Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app and iPad to run it on, for example, or for someone with a mobility impairment to obtain a device with a virtual assistant built-in that can be configured to do innumerable things on that person’s behalf, reducing the need for extraneous movements such as crossing a room to reach a lightswitch. Creating assistive technology solutions that run on or in conjunction with mass-market, consumer-grade technology is superior to any dedicated, single-use tools in many ways, including portability, versatility, and ease-of-use.
More broadly, technology democratizes access to information, having a broad range of effects from making college more affordable to impacting election results. Sticking for a moment with the example of reducing education costs, digitizing textbooks reduces the cost of textbooks from over $1200 per year on top of tuition to $8-$10 per textbook. Furthermore, according to former Representative (now Governor) Jared Polis of Colorado, one of the founders of the Congressional Open Source Caucus, the digitization and open sourcing of textbooks also “allows [for] better quality, dynamically updated content” (The Hill, via YouTube).
The most innovative, forward-thinking features tend to be reserved for the most high-end, expensive devices, but in many cases, the people who can benefit the most from those new features are the least able to afford the hardware they’re built on or into. The ubiquity of technology presents an opportunity to make communication and information access easier for everyone, but if only the upper echelons of society can afford it, are these supposedly innovative tools reaching their full potential or having the most impact they possibly could? My team and I are currently planning on hosting a focus group in the near future with interdisciplinary Subject Matter Experts to help us shape our curriculum for the digital literacy workshops I described earlier. If you or someone you know has experience in education, curriculum building, occupational therapy, assistive technologies, or anything else that might be relevant, we’d love to get your input! Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read my previous Mindthis Magazine articles here and here