On disability and the digital realm: better access for all?

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On disability and the digital realm: better access for all?

We’ve long addressed the question of disability through the lens of assisted living, with the idea of excluding or even confining the disabled. But since the 1970s and the rise of the civil rights movements, the question has now been framed as one of independent living, with an approach aimed at greater social inclusion of everyone with disabilities

Lecture du braille

Remarkable progress has been accomplished to encourage greater accessibility for persons with disabilities. In France, a law dating back to 1987 imposes fines on companies with more than 20 employees if they don’t hire at least 6% of persons with disabilities. Another law enacted in 2005 redefines what constitutes a disability, encourages accessibility in all spheres of life, and imposes compensation rights.

Undeniably, regulatory contexts and social policies are crucial to such advancements. However, such laws also tend to confine the subject of disability to legal requirements only. This approach has shown its limits. Unemployment figures for people with disabilities is double the national average. Among unemployed persons with disabilities, more than half have been unemployed for over a year.

Few startup founders have chosen to directly address disability issues: regulatory constraints and policy-driven logics are barriers to market-driven projects. However, innovations in user experience (many of which have come from disabled people), the power of personal computing, and the culture of design from Silicon Valley, have significantly transformed the lives of disabled persons.

Not only does software provide a benefit for disabled persons, but software companies must increasingly address questions related to accessibility in their value-creation process. The entire user base now expects better design and customisation, not only users with disabilities. Adapting the value proposition to newer and increasingly specific needs is at the heart of many software companies’ strategy.

Disability and digital are thus intimately linked. As we create new products for persons with disabilities, these products will end up benefitting the population as a whole. After all, aren’t we all more or less disabled? Otherwise, why would we even need technology in the first place?


The history of technology is a history of empowerment

The history of personal computing is fundamentally a history of individual empowerment. Personal computers began to be popular after a decade of marketing on individual empowerment. No one has forgotten Apple’s “1984” advertisement, promoting the individual against the masses. The values of emancipation and personal freedom encouraged within Silicon Valley have long presided over the development of information technology and design in the decades following the launch of the personal computer. From the start, the end-game has been to give individuals the power to do without organisations, to create value outside of them, and even to overthrow them.

Apple BigBrother

In that perspective, persons with disabilities are users like any other: seeking greater independence and power. All of that technology is used to compensate for, surmount, or otherwise help humans survive in a hostile environment. Many technologies of the 20th century have been implemented with the aim of helping persons with disabilities, and their usage has eventually been expanded to the population at large. The remote control, for example, was initially designed for persons with limited mobility, but ended up being used by everyone. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has a focus on independent living, notably in the adaptation of robotics for amputees, but its research has an impact on the entire population.


On the other hand, many applications intended for persons with disabilities are based on technologies that were not specifically developed for that purpose, such as voice recognition technologies and scanning. The startup RogerVoice, for example, has perfected an application to allow the deaf and hard-of-hearing to make phone calls. Applications like Magnify, Magnifier, transform your smartphone into a powerful magnifying glass. For persons with low-vision and for hard-of-hearing persons, these software apps represent a new form of liberation. For Michael Schuman, an author with low vision, henceforth “losing one’s eyesight should no longer mean losing one’s job”.

Lastly, social networking platforms make it easier to organise collective action among individuals with similar disabilities. They can thus compensate themselves for what may be lacking in public services or infrastructure. They can boost their independence by obtaining information on existing solutions, helping each other, and alerting the public on important subjects. Certain shared-economy applications make it possible to compensate for absences in public infrastructure: for example, it is now easier and cheaper to order a chauffeured car to move around more freely.


Disability, design, and innovations in user experience

We mistakenly believe that innovation is necessarily technological, and requires the talent of the most advanced engineers. The fact is that most of the recent successes in the digital economy are based above all on innovations in user- experience and marketing. Because innovation is essentially produced by the observation and the evolution of usage, integrating persons with disabilities in the design and production of goods and services has become an imperative. At least, that’s how Eric Conti sees it. As director of innovation at France’s SNCF Railway, he observes: “The integration of experiences from persons with disabilities stimulates us and raises the level of expectation of quality of service. (…) It forces us to be more demanding and prepare for the most difficult scenarios.”

Software applications are characterized by their extreme attention to design – ease of use, seamless user experience, customization…  These ideas form the basis of design thinking, a popular concept today. As we’ve written in this article on design:

“Through continued A/B testing and improvements, software giants – such as Facebook – have learned to produce almost perfect design. Even when products and usages are numerous and complex – Facebook is indeed a complex platform! -, form and function are fused together in the purest possible interface. Objects must disappear behind their use, since it is the user and their needs (or problems) that count. Startups have made design a value proposition to which users are now accustomed.”

Persons with disabilities, used to continually transform, complement, or create the tools they need, can provide valuable lessons to better understand use-cases or suggest new usages. “Persons with disabilities often acquire an acute sensitivity and a unique skillset. They are excellent at solving problems and have unique adaptive capabilities that enable the development of original solutions,” says a representative of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). It’s why the disability use-cases have always been “a vehicle to spread innovation”.

Since new technologies can be modified at will to meet the needs of their users, each innovation spreads rapidly as each new application can address the needs of new populations, in a new context, yet use the same technologies. Frank Moss, former director of the MIT Media Lab, reminds us that the typewriter was invented for use by the blind before being adopted by the general population. At an event organized at TheFamily on the theme of startups and dependency, Nicolas Colin quotes Seymour Papert, MIT professor (and legendary inventor of the LOGO language) when he says:

“We are all disabled – some more so than others”.

Perhaps the culture of design is intimately linked to the culture of including individuals and their differences? It is striking how most of the research conducted on the economic impact of disability and inclusion is done in American and Canadian universities. In France, however, the subject of disability is still mostly addressed through the lens of regulatory requirements.


Conclusion: matching digital technology with disability leads to a promising future

Digital technology has empowered individuals to be political activists. Connected through the web, supported by the media, persons with disabilities have gained considerable visibility: the impressive media coverage of the 2016 paralympic games in Rio was driven by social networks. The amount of data produced and exchanged around the event demonstrated the public’s interest in the sporting achievements of athletes with disabilities.

Future progress depends on public awareness. Bottom-up pressure by users to advance the cause of social inclusion and independent living could redefine employee and customer relationships and brand positioning. Such actions could very well be more effective than company CSR targets or legal obligations imposed by governments.

Finally, it is in the field of design that the question of accessibility is the most promising. Use of technology by persons with disabilities reminds us that machines complete human beings at least as much as they replace them. Rather than forever speculating on the destruction of jobs by machines, perhaps we should spend more time thinking about how we can use machines to improve our own condition and gain more freedom.

Digital Marketing Officer chez WillBe Group. Diplômée HEC, agrégée d'anglais, Laetitia a enseigné la politique américaine à Sciences Po et se spécialise aujourd'hui dans les questions relatives à l'innovation, la transition numérique de l'économie et le futur du travail et des organisations. Elle est l'auteur, avec Nicolas Colin, du livre "Faut-il avoir peur du numérique ?" paru chez Armand Colin en 2016. @Vitolae

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