This challenging article on disability and technology floated across my social media today. I'd love to do a more extensive write up on it but my brain is fried and i can't get my thoughts in order today. So I hope you don't mind me sharing it this way. I've shared the bits that really caught my attention and have got me thinking tonight.
One group, however, 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, as Regan Brashear has documented in her outstanding film Fixed, the most common response is to call for technology to fix disabled bodies.
Twenty-five years ago, when the Americans With Disabilities 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 an imagination of the building's potential users.
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.
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.
But democracy and capitalism are also committed to the logic of the fair playing field. And that is precisely where the design of technology today falls short. Technology powerfully shapes human outcomes. Increasingly, it is clear that these outcomes are unevenly distributed and that technological innovation is at least a contributor to inequality. The very success of technology in upgrading the lives of some has made it even more difficult for others to thrive. Can we do better in the future? Yes, by designing for diversity and ability.