Before I start blogging about the gadgets and devices that I discovered at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, I wanted to write about something I have been chewing on for the last 24 hours, which has ultimately altered the way I am going to approach my upcoming book, The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology (due out in late 2009). While there were lots of cool, new technologies exhibited at ATIA, I also had the chance to attend a half-dozen seminars that, when tied all together, painted a fantastic yet mostly under-reported picture of the future of assistive technology and the driving forces that will allow people with disabilities — whether they are born with one, have been injured during a war, or are experiencing the effects of aging — to live longer and more fruitful lives. Here are five trends that today are shaping the assistive technology environment:
1. Globalization of access. A young boy in an African village uses an old cell phone, which provides the majority of Internet use among poorer people in Africa, to download books to teach himself to read and learn English. He also uses a global commodity trading site to benchmark daily prices of chickens and goats to sell and trade in his village. Whether this boy has a disability matters not, because he is still able to educate and employ himself using the power of the Internet that began in wealthy nations and is trickling down to the third world. Globalizing information to make it available and accessible to everyone, with or without a disability, regardless of whether they have a computer, is a philosophy that has recently been coined among a group of researchers as “Raising the Floor.” This team is working to develop a free, open-source model among researchers and developers by which users anywhere in the world can log in to their profile, which has been customized for their Internet accessibility needs. The concept is similar to Google Language, but for accessibility and disability. With enough resources and dedication, its impact across the world will be astounding.
2. Universal design is the next green. Universal Design is a framework, in particular, for technology that is created to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. For instance, a computer or mobile phone that has built-in access features for anyone with a sight, hearing or mobility disability, which can easily be turned on or off (similar to Microsoft OS Accessibility Options, which have improved substantially in Windows 7.) The Institute for Human Centered Design compares universal design to green design, saying that green design focuses on environmental sustainability, while universal design focuses on social sustainability. Universal design MUST be how companies design — and consumers interact with — technology in the future. Having assistive technology built into the process, not just the product, will effectively eliminate the need to distinguish between disabilities — which is a cornerstone of global disability classifications — and will also add more sustainability to products as users age or develop a disability.
3. Web-savvy grandmas. When our grandparents were senior citizens, they spent most of their time doing the typical activities: cutting coupons, traveling, finding the early bird specials, enjoying time with family, taking care of health matters, and so on. This hasn’t changed, but the computer age has changed how we — and the next generation of older Americans — are doing it. The examples mentioned above all can be conducted online now, on websites like Redplum,com, Expedia.com, Yelp.com, WebMD.com. Meanwhile, programs like e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and Skype help us keep tabs on our family and friends. With 78.2 million baby boomers, there’s a real need to make high technology accessible. Not only will this generation demand it, they will require it in order to continue their livelihoods. The aging population gives another dimension to the disability technology issue; this group will crack open the market for high-tech assistive technology, and create incredible opportunities for companies like Dell, RIM, Nokia, Google, and others to design technology without accessibility limitations.
4. iPhones of the future. As devices and gadgets become more sophisticated, technology will be more of a harbinger of productivity than ever before. Apple’s iPhone, for example, allows you to be a multi-tasking savant: Find the cheapest gas station and a recipe for risotto while learning Spanish and booking a golfing trip? No problemo. (One of the newest iPhone apps is iSpectrum’s Color Blind Assistant.) The only way to make these cool gadgets more accessible is to push for and utilize advancements in technology that are still in their pioneering stage, especially for mobile devices, like tactile multi-touch, alternative mouse formats (eye-controlled iPhone, anyone? Apple already put out a speech-enabled one), speech recognition, text to speech, closed captions, screen magnification, and the list goes on. New technologies work best when they’re built in from the start, not retro-fitted.
5. America’s disability agenda. Barack Obama is the biggest disability celebrity since Casey Martin, who successfully challenged the Supreme Court to use a golf cart on the PGA Tour. President Obama knows the facts: Under his watch he has 54 million Americans with disabilities, two million American children ages five to fifteen with special needs, and 60,000 U.S. service members who have been wounded or become mentally ill from battlefield experience. He has already laid out his agenda for helping people with disabilities succeed, which can be read here, and it includes boosting education and employment opportunities by providing resources such as assistive technologies. What’s more, President Bush in September 2008 signed an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act that more strongly ties the ADA to Section 504, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires schools and companies to provide equal access through accommodations and modifications, such as — you guessed it, assistive technology.
Assistive technology is the hope on which the future hinges for large sections of American society as well as those in developing nations. Assistive technology, it can be argued, is as important to humankind as the protections we are putting in place for the environment as it protects people’s creativity, productivity and intelligence from diminishing under artificial barriers. Assistive technology will level the playing field, raise the floor and open the doors. Millions of people will be knocking, and assistive technology will let them in.