As a community, people with disabilities have an amazing ability to creatively negotiate the immense challenges posed by inaccessible environments.
From a blind user figuring out how to use the inaccessible menu systems of everyday products by listening to whirrs and beeps that are often meaningless to others, to a child who uses his mouth to hold a pen to write with, disabled people tend to be good at finding unique ways of working, despite the environment they are operating in.
In some cases, great designs come from people’s needs – sometimes specialist, sometimes mainstream. In the best cases, well-executed design of everyday products takes the needs of our diverse human race, or at least some of it, into account. But sadly, this isn’t always the case.
It seems that increasingly, disabled people’s needs are not taken into account when it comes to the design of new technology. This is despite the fact that the numbers of people with disabilities are well-known – one in five people in the UK are affected by disability. We also know that acquired disability, as a result of living longer, is on the rise.
Historically, the needs of disabled people have driven some of the world’s greatest technological innovations.
Pellegrino Turri, an inventor of the 19th Century, developed one of the first mechanical devices that enabled his blind girlfriend to be able to write letters to him without the need to rely on a scribe to write for her. The typewriter was born, followed by the delivery of the qwerty keyboard – ever-present today, even on our touchscreen devices.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the first to have developed a “reading machine for the blind” – a device not dissimilar in size to a refrigerator in the late 1970s, using synthetic speech to read text that could be scanned. Today, these OCR systems are on every desktop. Ray’s latest delivery – an app for mobile phones - offers orientation instructions to ensure that a blind person captures the document correctly with the camera.
The phonograph, precursor to the gramophone, and all that came after, was developed with dictation of letters and talking books for blind people as the two main possibilities for its use.
From colour contrast to sock sorters, the list is a long one – where through necessity, a design idea has been triggered by real need and translated into mainstream, everyday use.
Today, we as a disability community benefit from the latest technologies – screen reading solutions, switch controls, eye control, ‘sticky keys’, and very new concepts such as brain actuation, or the use of virtual reality simulations to support people with autism in controlled exposure to environments that they know will be challenging for them. These and many more have been hard won, often with the support of key company advocates, legislation and, simply, a great idea.
However, there are areas of life which, from an accessibility point of view, are still illusive. Often traditional marketing ideas see disability as too complicated, too difficult to reach, or too “niche”.
If I am looking for a washing machine or piece of kitchen equipment that I can use, for example, what I need is not always available. If I settle for an inaccessible piece of equipment, then the manufacturer will continue to think that the product is a success. But refusing to buy the product will do nothing but confuse the shop assistant. Making our voices heard is not always easy. We need manufacturers to consider disability from the outset of their designs, to ensure that their products are accessible.
Looking ahead to the future, in the world of education and work especially, we are tackling one of the very essential elements that make us human – intelligence. We are on a path to create intelligent machines, robots, delivery systems, and driverless cars. The very fabric of how our economy works and what human endeavour is all about will be transformed.
More than ever, we need to ensure that accessibility is dedicated to technical development and thinking. We cannot afford to lose the hard-won victories around this, nor can we afford to rely on the few who rise to the challenge.
We, the disability community, need to be clear and unified around our needs, and we must re-invent our methods for holding society to account around accessibility. Technology has the power to change the lives of disabled people. We must harness this to ensure everyone benefits from the rapid advancements in technology.