"When you think disability, think zeitgeist. I'm serious. We live at a time when the disabled are on the leading edge of a broader societal trend toward the use of assistive technology. With the advent of miniature wireless tech, electronic gadgets have stepped up their invasion of the body, and our concept of what it means and even looks like to be human is wide open to debate. Humanity's specs are back on the drawing board, thanks to some unlikely designers, and the disabled have a serious advantage in this conversation. They've been using technology in collaborative, intimate ways for years - to move, to communicate, to interact with the world." says John Hockenberry in The Next Brainiacs in Wired Magazine.
"When you think disability, free yourself from the sob-story crap, all the oversize shrieking about people praying for miracles and walking again, or triumphing against the odds. Instead, think puppets. At a basic level, physical disability is really just a form of puppetry. If you've ever marveled at how someone can bring a smudged sock puppet to life or talked back to Elmo and Grover, then intellectually you're nearly there. Puppetry is the original brain-machine interface. It entertains because it shows you how this interface can be ported to different platforms."
Hockenberry focuses on physical issues in this article but what he is saying impacts all who function in ways different from the "mainstream norm." He continues, "Williams says it's impossible to evaluate any technology on function alone. For instance, he says the value of his ability to communicate is directly related to his mobility. "Someone recently asked me, 'If you were given a choice of having a voice or a power wheelchair, which would you choose?' This is a no-brainer for me. I would choose the power wheelchair. What would I do with only a voice - sit at home and talk to the TV? Another thing I wouldn't give up is my computer. With a computer and a modem I can get my thoughts, such as they are, out to the world."
"Frank DeRuyter says designers need to think in the broadest possible terms when they approach human-interface technology. "We're just beginning to realize the importance of integrating movement technology with communications tech. We see that a GPS device can powerfully increase the functionality of a communications board. When people roll their wheelchairs into a grocery store, the GPS will automatically change the board's stored phrases and icons into ones relevant to shopping. Shifting context as you move - that's what the brain does. Now we can do it, too."
'"It's certainly true that the general population has glommed onto some principles of assistive tech. Just roll down the street and observe the folks with wires dangling from their ears."'
The problem is that they have attached themselves only to personally-used technology, the false belief in meritocracy seems to prevent them from offering assistance to others. People assume that those who fight through things are always superior to those who use aids, no matter the frustration, the limitations, or the final result. Of course they make those assumptions while speaking into their Bluetooth cell-phone headset and writing emails with spellcheck in place on their computers.
Because empathy is so hard, because personal relationships are so important, I do not think we can make the breakthrough we need to until there is a critical mass of "people with disabilities" – all issues included, in all those universities and agencies that help generate educational policy and train teachers.
When Dr. D. Kim Reid brought up Disability Affirmative Action at the Disability Studies in Education Conference this May, I wasn't sure what to think. But recent conversations had led me to believe that we absolutely need to do this.
- Ira Socol