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The Technological Why

robotI have a confession to make, one that on the surface would seem a little awkward, given the public position I’ve taken on the subject. Sometimes I’m baffled by technology. There, I said it. I mean, I’m not at that “old man standing on the porch in shorts and black socks, shaking my fists at the newfangled world” level of befuddlement. In fact, I don’t feel threatened by technology at all, which I suppose is something. By and large, I live a life driven by technology to a certain extent, so I’m getting by okay. But there are embarrassing gaps. I never establish Bluetooth connections on the first try, for example. And I’m glad the Age of the Fax is over, because I was almost entirely incapable of sending one successfully. That was a rough few years.

Where assistive technology is concerned, there was a time when technology wasn’t moving all that fast or that impressively. It’s been exactly ten years since Schuyler had her first experience with AAC tech, and I can still remember those early days. The first device she tried was what you might charitably describe as primitive. But soon enough, she was using a top of the line touch screen speech device. It still wasn’t any more advanced than any garden variety touch screen kiosk you might see at the mall, but it drove an advanced language system and it turned her life around.

I can remember the first time I had a “holy crap” moment with assistive technology. It was in 2008, at the very first assistive tech conference I spoke at. It was eye gaze technology, and I remember being amazed, not just at what was being shown, but at the promise of things to come. “In the future,” I was told, “you won’t have to sit still or even wait very long for it to triangulate and calibrate to your eyes. It’ll just recognize your eyes and do it automatically. And soon it’ll be able to compensate for even the most extreme involuntary movements like a Parkinsonian tremor.”

All of which came to pass. I remember at the time thinking it all seemed like magic.

The other day, I saw a tech announcement that grabbed my attention. A company called Tactus Technology has developed a touch screen that actually creates tactile buttons that can appear or disappear at the user’s command. If you want to know how it works, go check out that link. I’m assuming there’s wizardry involved.

Much like when I saw the iPad for the first time, my immediate thoughts ran to assistive technology, even though the product itself is intended for the general consumer electronic market. It’s been about five years since the iPad was released, and it has become central to the world of assistive technology and disability. The world of disability is home to countless McGyvers, constantly repurposing technology to meet its needs.

When I saw the Tactus interface, my first thought was that it could very well represent the next step in keyguard technology for AAC users. I immediately envisioned a fully interactive display system, where the screen actually responds to the changing display and reacts accordingly. Keyboard grid, speech prosthesis display, braille, whatever. As with the iPad, the possibilities are, if not unimaginable, certainly unimagined.

I’ve seen some debate online recently over the benefit of new technologies, and whether or not they are focusing on things like allowing users to conceal their disabilities, and what is the message that this sends. It’s a fair point; Schuyler freely admits that one reason she loves her iPad is that it allows her to communicate when she needs to but without telegraphing her disability. I get why that’s problematic, although it is entirely her choice. She has agency over how she chooses to live the life of disability she’s been given, and she can be a strong self-advocate and still try to pass when she can. One day, she may feel differently, and when she does, she will no doubt use her technology differently, too.

For me, the tech isn’t the thing. It’s not the goal, to develop the perfect language system or the perfect assistive speech device or the unimaginable but amazing accessibility tools. It’s easy to get caught up in those pieces. The thing I’ve realized over the past ten years is that it’s all about a different and less tangible goal, one where people with disabilities have the right tools to mitigate the obstacles placed in their path, whether by nature or fate or an unyielding society.

I’m not so concerned about the how of the technology. But I am pretty invested in the why.

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