#DisabilityDongle (in French: “gadget for the disabled”): on this hashtag in English launched by activist Liz Jackson, many tweeters make fun of inventions supposed to revolutionize the lives of people with disabilities.
A wheelchair with special wheels for climbing stairs, smart gloves that allow you to understand sign language without having to learn it, or even an exoskeleton allowing paralyzed people to walk… Regularly, a university or a start-up up is creating a buzz by promising to make society more accessible through technology. People with disabilities are skeptical about the real scope of these innovations.
Poorly adapted technologies
Ashley Shaw is an associate professor at the University of Virginia, a specialist in the links between technology and disability, and disabled herself. “A student once asked me, ‘How do you go to the bathroom in an exoskeleton?’ The answer was that the person in the exoskeleton has to take it off entirely, and move into their wheelchair in order to then go to the bathroom. It’s useless away from home.she laughs.
One illustration among many of the fact that these technologies actually meet the needs of people with disabilities quite poorly, for lack of understanding. Similarly, the gloves that translate sign language are unable to take into account the expression of the face, which is nevertheless an essential key to understanding. Conversely, technology like the self-stabilizing spoon really fills a need, allowing people with severe tremors to eat easily.
“These videos often come from university press services”continues Ashley Shaw. “I feel like someone invents a chair to climb the stairs every three months. In reality, some of these technologies are already on the market: there are wheelchairs that can climb a step, a sidewalk for example.
The maintenance difficulties of these innovations are another aspect that makes them difficult to use on a daily basis. When they are put on sale, the necessary maintenance circuit in the event of a breakdown is often not put in place, and the current difficulties in supplying technological equipment make things even worse.
“It can take months to get a basic manual wheelchair repaired. And you’re stuck at home during that time if you don’t have a backup device. For me, this means that no one has thought about what it means in the long term to use these inventions.underlines Ashley Shaw.
Finally, she also recalls that these are extremely expensive devices, which are not supported by the State. “Often, people with disabilities have less money, because the biases of the system mean that they have less access to employment. We ask people already affected by poverty to pay for very expensive devices so that they can – tada! – do the same things as others.
Accessibility seen by the able-bodied
Céline Extenso is the co-founder of the association Les Dévalideuses, which defends the rights of disabled women, and she too is not convinced. She believes that these disability-ill-adapted innovations are not only ineffective, but also indicative of how our society views the inclusion of people with disabilities.
“The technical aids that are overvalued in the media, in general, are the technical aids that will bring us as close as possible to validity, and not necessarily those that will bring us the most autonomy. The goal is not just to get to a place, it’s to climb the stairs like a valid person. Access ramps and elevators are certainly less quick to make the buzz, but they are much more reliable and less expensive.
“Politically, it comes down once again to telling the disabled individual to adapt to the environment, and not the other way around. It puts the responsibility on us, and it individualizes a problem that often could be solved much more easily and at a lower cost by adapting the environment., she points out. Especially since the ramps and stairs also benefit strollers, deliveries, people in manual wheelchairs…
The tech industry and disability: can do better
What explains why we see so many technologies so ill-suited to the real needs of the people who will use them? For Ashley Shaw, the answer is simple: designers don’t take the time to work with people with disabilities.
“Some people in the tech industry want to help people with disabilities, but don’t really communicate with them”she explains. “Many companies in the sector would need to recruit disabled workers. But it does involve thinking more broadly about the qualifications one is really looking for, and about experience as a substitute for a degree, because many people with disabilities have encountered barriers during their education.”
She also notes that in these viral videos, it is extremely rare that we see the disabled person testing the device speak. She is only there so that we install a device around her. “We want to celebrate able-bodied heroes”she summarizes.
For Céline Extenso, there is a real need to focus on more basic and more reliable technologies. “It is important that this research exists. Exoskeletons are technologies that will be used in the future. But beyond the bling-bling, I think that the technique must refocus a little on the most basic and modular solutions. Because we are going to be given hyper-technological packages, when we often only need certain aids.
According to her, the real urgency does not concern the tech industry, but the implementation of the regulations that already exist. “The accessibility laws for new constructions are still not applied: even new buildings that are being built today are still inaccessible. Whereas when we design accessibility right from the project stage, the additional cost is really minimal. As for the accessibility of existing buildings, there are always more derogations, postponements of laws, authorizations to miss this obligation. If all the rules in force were respected, an overpriced wheelchair that can climb stairs would no longer be necessary.