A Lack of Imagination and Thought for the Disabled

A Whole New World for People with Disabilities
August 18, 2015
Screen Readers
September 1, 2015

When someone starts a new job, they update their mental faculties by acquiring skills, learning new software and organizational routines, and aligning their behavior with company expectations. Although, most people have never needed a biophysical upgrade for a new job, but there is a certain group that faces constant pressure to upgrade their bodies: the disabled.

Think about it – it’s built into the very language of disability. Dis-abled: a body that is less able than or inferior to other bodies. Not surprisingly, the most common response is to call for technology to fix disabled bodies. Prosthetic limbs, laser eye surgery, even the tummy tuck – all seek to return seemingly damaged bodies back to normal.

This cultural perspective pits people with disabilities – and perhaps all people regardless of disability or not – in a competitive race against those with greater abilities. Many years ago, when the Americans with Disability Act passed, it was supposed to shift this logic. The ADA was not simply a declaration of the rights of people with disabilities, but a profound statement that the problem of disability was not inherent to bodies but rather a result of poor technological design. If people in wheelchairs couldn’t enter a building, it wasn’t because of their bodies’ limitations, but rather was the fault of an architect with too narrow of an imagination of the building’s potential users.

The ADA has been highly successful in certain respects. Almost all public buildings now have wheelchair entrances, yet the problem lies much deeper and runs to a much greater extent than the ADA ever imagined – and it has the potential to impact every one of us, whether we have a recognized disability or not. Rather than designing the world so that a diverse population can function and thrive within it, technology’s patterns force people to design their bodies to fit in – or those patterns exclude people from participation when they don’t fit.

Every technological design – every workstation, piece of safety equipment, computer, building, vehicle, etc. – must first imagine the bodies of its potential users. Yet current engineering design imagination and practice routinely exclude a variety of different kinds of bodies, including but not limited to people with disabilities. Only in a few explicit cases – and for a few specific kinds of bodily disabilities, such as those that require wheelchairs – are the bodies of people with disabilities reliably incorporated into the design imagination.

And the problem only becomes more complex when the relationship between technology and its users is more than simply physical. Technology designs can require cognitive skills as well as physical abilities to achieve optimal performance. A computer interface that presents information textually may fail to communicate effectively, for example, to people who learn visually or spatially or by working with their hands. We are used to thinking of such challenges as capable of being overcome through training, but that perspective may underestimate the scope of the barriers design poses to integration of diverse people into technological systems.

Technologies also do not stand by themselves, isolated from other facets of society. Rather, they are integrated into larger, more complex socio-technical arrangements that distribute their benefits, costs, and risks across different groups. These arrangements can require financial, social, or even political abilities in order to gain access to and use new technologies – as is well-known in problems of energy justice, the digital divide, and fair pricing for pharmaceutical in poor countries. Human variation in cognitive, financial, and socio-political abilities is, of course, just as wide as in physical abilities. The failure to design for that variability is just as disabling.