Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Technology Transfer": Assistive Technology and Disability Rights

(Part of a series on disability human rights.) Friends know that I’ve been experimenting lately with new assistive technology for low-vision or blind users. (Click on the following links for an especially helpful list of U.S. government, non-profit, private vendor, and grassroots blind user resources maintained by the Perkins School for the Blind as well as lists of device and software descriptions from the National Federation of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind
I can enter into such adventures more easily than most as a privileged law professor who lives in the Global North, but challenges remain even for those with the highest level of practical access.
The internet is a treasure-trove of useful information as well as a wildly effective organizing tool, including for persons with disabilities (PWD). On the other hand, the technology and training required to make the internet accessible can be out of reach for many of the estimated 650 million people with disabilities (PWD) around the world. (Photo above: Students in technology training class, Carroll Center for the Blind, (c) 2008).
Web designers may forget to offer accessibility options. Some unscrupulous vendors overcharge PWD, state agencies, or their employers for technology otherwise easily available in mainstream contexts. Mainstream vendors or service providers may head for the hills when PWD ask to speak with their (often non-existent) “accessibility coordinator” about the best way to configure equipment or software.
The many reputable professionals at agencies, non-profits, and vendors who do care passionately about serving their clients have to constantly justify the unique benefits of their services or products in helping people achieve their potential. And, as in all aspects of mainstream information services, assistive technology is constantly and rapidly changing. “It’s a small, specialized market,” some say, so there’s just no incentive to pay attention to the needs or goals of PWD in this area.
All this despite the fact that assistive technologies originally developed for consumers with disabilities often become mainstream For example, my computer was “talking” and I was reading audiobooks and scanned materials long before they became part of everyday popular culture for the non-disabled. Physicians and lawyers now routinely use voice recognition software to dictate medical records and briefs, while cellphone users use it to tell their devices to "call home."
And it is simply untrue that the “market” is small. In reality, the market depends much more on who is defined to be “mainstream” (an aging baby-boomer who needs reading glasses?) and the low expectations we have about who will use assistive technology and why. Why, some asked a decade ago, would people in poor rural villages use cellphones or laptops? Turns out, they do use them, for everything from checking on distant relatives, to figuring out market prices for farm goods and teaching children to read.
The reasonable accommodations necessary to ensure access to information, cultural exchange, and scientific advancement are human rights. They are also crucial if PWD are to remain full participants in building a sustainable and equitable global economy. Yet such access all too often remains hard to come by.

A Better World is Possible
The knowledge and talents evidenced by farmers, musicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, activists, computer programmers, parents, shopkeepers and small business owners, athletes, and, yes, even politicians and bankers don’t disappear if they develop a disability. Similarly, children born with disabilities can and should aspire to reach their dreams just as strongly as non-disabled children. (Photo at left: Participants in Vision 5K Run, Carroll Center for the Blind (c) 2008)
An inclusive society can also be a flourishing society when all its members are treated with respect and enabled to reach their potential.
By contrast, we all know what happens when millions are denied basic needs, socially marginalized, and subjected to violence and poverty.
International conventions and national laws cannot solve all the challenges facing those with disabilities.
But they can help educate policymakers and judges, set standards, and provide a supportive tool for litigation and political strategies. The right to access to information and reasonable accommodations are an important aspect of that struggle in today’s rocky global economy.

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