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Tech Companies: Focus on fixing the Infrastructure, not Disability

It’s like an ableist version of Groundhog Day. Except instead of Bill Murray as a disgruntled weatherman, it’s a young spectacled 20-something in a chequered shirt telling you how the seventh pair of sign language gloves “really is the one this time, folks!”

And if it’s not sign language gloves, then it’s wheelchairs which can make its user stand up or, more recently, vibrating shoes for the blind and visually impaired. Every day tech companies leave us spoilt for choice when it comes to accessible technology we actually don’t need – or want.

The intent is, quite clearly, to make things easier for non-disabled people. Sign language gloves, for example, turn what is often American Sign Language (ASL) into English, when hearing people could really do with learning some basic signs.

It should be the responsibility of non-disabled people to make society more accessible to disabled people, but sometimes, it seems, that request for the bare minimum can be too much.

They won’t install wheelchair ramps, so they’ll make you stand up. They won’t make architecture accessible for blind and visually impaired people, so they’ll turn your shoe into a Nokia.

In my own take on the Principal Skinner meme, it very much feels like a case of non-disabled people asking: “Am I inaccessible infrastructure? No, it’s the disabled people who are wrong.”

It should be obvious why putting the responsibility back on disabled people is so problematic. We didn’t design the infrastructure which we can’t access – hell, those involved probably didn’t consult us during the early stages. We also can’t control non-disabled people’s attitudes which disable us just as much as physical barriers do.

We can’t change our disabilities to suit your inaccessible environment, but you can make it more inclusive for us.

We see this idea explored in the social model of disability, something to which many disabled people subscribe for the way in which it frames accessibility. There’s our condition or impairments, but what disables us is in fact society, through the way in which the world around us is constructed and the attitudes which non-disabled people form of us. The most common instance of this, for example, is the absence of a wheelchair ramp at a venue.

The argument isn’t that it’s the wheelchair user’s fault, but rather they are disabled by the building’s architecture which has failed to include this access provision.

This is the easiest approach to take, too. Attempting to address the needs of disabled people, which have arisen as a result of non-disabled people’s attitudes and decisions, to make situations more palatable and convenient for non-disabled people is rife with issues. Not only does it ignore the root cause of the problem, but it disregards the reality that every disabled person has different requirements.

Technology with a blanket use for a specific disability is the typical ‘one-size-fits all’ approach which fails to recognise the nuance, diversity and complexity which makes our disabled community so incredible.

If you think about it too much, it’ll make you despair. Thousands of pounds wasted on a vanity project when it could have been used to pay towards wheelchair ramps, hearing loop systems and so much more.

One other thing which most arguments against this type of technology don’t mention, is that these companies probably want us disabled people to buy gadgets which attempt to minimise our needs. In other words, paying for ableism.

This reductionism by technology – this idea that tech can ‘fix’ our disabilities – isn’t new, either. I should know, as I’ve seen it constantly in news articles around hearing aids and cochlear implants as a Deaf person.

The media fawns over clips of babies and children having hearing technology switched on and then promptly becoming emotional. What they don’t realise is that these moments can be incredibly overwhelming, and it isn’t an opportunity for them to dabble in inspiration porn now that the individual can apparently ‘hear again’.

Spoiler alert: they can’t, as these devices are an aid, not a conclusion. The needs of disabled people can – and do – fluctuate, so designing technology to try and make them fit in an ableist society is, frankly, a ridiculous endeavour.

This is not to say that technology is a terrible thing for disabled people – absolutely not – but non-disabled people have to move away from this approach of simply designing things based on what they assume to be our access needs.

There’s an alarming trend in the world of tech (this includes the social media giants) where equipment, tools and features are rolled out without consulting disabled people. It has to stop.

The tech world feeds on solutions, and the solution to the ‘problem’ they’re trying to resolve could not be simpler.

Talk to disabled people.

That’s it. That’s the tweet – or rather, article. Talk to disabled people, and do it at the very start of the process. It’s when these products and ideas are co-produced with disabled people, for disabled people, that they properly address the needs of disabled people, and the tech geniuses realise that we don’t need another pair of magic marigolds for Deaf people. Please.

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