An examination of disability and technology trends in a changing world including criteria for companies developing new equipment and technology to ensure their work aids control, independence and assists disabled people’s goals in their lives

May 1986 speech by Richard and Becky Llewellyn at the World Congress on Education and Technology Vancouver British Columbia

Role of consumers in age of mass marketing

Let’s begin by briefly examining the role of consumers in general. Who are they? Since the Industrial Revolution, the purchasing consumer in the predominantly laissez faire Western philosophy has acted as final market­place arbiter. Consumers provided the natural checks and balances in the trade of goods and services. Has there been a shift in the traditional consumer balance of power in more recent times?

Post-war application of psychological methods in marketing, research, packaging and media usage have certainly if subtly changed the traditional independent consumer role. We now have an economy and culture which uses professional people to create mass thinking and mass demand. Traditional areas in which to exercise direct consumer involvement seem increasingly limited and ineffectual.

Nations too, can be thought of as consumers, struggling within this same power structure. Today, transnational corporations network the world, making decisions about high technology which even consumer governments are unable to influence. Economic shifts on the international money market also jeopardise the ability of consumer nations to plan their participation, as prices of technology suffer sudden dislocations. We have also seen the old national and corporate developers of a technology maximising financial return in making way for the new, by dumping superseded, sometimes dangerous, early models, onto others.

Potential for ‘information poor’ in climate of information richness

Australia and many Third World countries have experienced the dumping of old technology with resultant health problems.    We have an epidemic, now called RSI, Repetitive Strain Injury, affecting thousands of workers and their families. Technological change itself is creating vulnerable groups in the labour market. The pace of development also holds potential for employment and social dislocation, and the creation of ‘information poor’ people in a polarising climate of information richness.

This rapid introduction of technology tends to divide people into two main camps:  technophiles (those who love it) and technophobes (those who don’t). What’s your gadget tolerance? After 29 years of living with a severe disability as a result of polio, I find myself more a technophobe. I am cautious about who controls the costs, adaptability and the burdens of maintenance.  My wife, on the other hand, is a technophile who is excited about the possibilities and opportunities, particularly of computer technology.

Disability and technology

We’d like to turn now to the disability field and identify the three major players that we see when technology is involved.

  • Consumers (people with disabilities)
  • Direct interveners (those who work/interact on a daily basis with consumers)
  • Technology superstructure (those who enable and supply the technology)

In the disability field, each of these players may also be consumers at some time. The ultimate consumer in our context is the person with disabilities.

We describe a disabled person as someone who has had an impairment, which has resulted in a functional loss or abnormality, either physical, emotional, sensory or intellectual. I hope you’ve noticed that in referring to people with disabilities, we emphasise the word ‘people’ first.   It’s useful to remind ourselves with language that disability, being disabled, is only one role. I may also be a student, a client, an employee or employer, a family member, a criminal or even a politician or a teacher. People become consumers when they enter a relationship with the superstructure of technology.

Technology superstructure as leaders

We’ve chosen the phrase “technology superstructure’ to hold an image of the very diverse players, who as a group, provide a possible technological solution.  The superstructure spans developers, technologists, engineers, programmers, researchers, the marketplace and its suppliers, donors, agencies, disability organisations and government.

The common characteristic is their enabling of people to both try and use new developments. They are not usually dealing with people with disabilities on a daily hands-on basis.    The superstructure tends to be the money transactors and to provide the leadership direction for future planning.

Direct interveners enable improvements through technology

In between these first two groups lie the direct interveners, who perform a unique role in matching the person with a disability to technology that will make an improvement in their lives. These direct interveners are often teachers and other workers in the helping professions, inventors and adapters, family members and friends. They usually meet and interact with the person with disabilities on a daily basis, contributing their skills and energy attempting to obtain a suitable technological item, then often to train the person and his close associates about its use and potential.

Disabled people create a new industry of helpers

These three levels are intertwined and interdependent with strong economic ties between all three sectors. Without people with disabilities, there would be no special schools and institutions, no careers for therapy-based interveners, no captive market for technology which compensates for functional limitations and no need for the service superstructure of agencies and governments!! Just as well there are a few of us to keep the economy rolling.

People with severe disabilities often need the access to information and assistance which the direct interveners provide. The mainstream marketers and developers of the technology superstructure also need the skills, time and effort of the specialist interveners to effectively match products to users, and to provide training and follow-up.

The rewards for the interveners are jobs working with disabilities which are usually humanly rewarding.  Interaction with the technology superstructure holds the excitement and challenge of a rapidly developing field.

For the superstructure, the rewards of servicing the disability field include additional profits, continuing roles for organisations and chances for saving government’s money when technology replaces human effort.

Who gets the benefits?

In this scene of interdependence, the boundaries between the helped and the helpers are therefore blurred.  All people involved in introducing new technology need to be clear on “Who’s helping whom?” and “Who really benefits?”

Most new technology is introduced to strengthen the functioning of an existing situation. In the area of disability, obviously we are trying to strengthen the individual.  The process of introduction is crucial to the outcome.  If the person initiates the action, makes decisions about their own requirements, goes through a selection procedure, pays for it with their own money, then they are modelling a normal consumer pattern. The possibility of making mistakes and taking risks are an integral part of that strengthening experience.

People with disabilities have decisions made for us

Most people with disabilities however, for many reasons, are not in this ideal situation. We are usually poor and for the most part, live with a cultural expectation of being cared for.  When interveners or agencies take responsibility for decisions about technological changes, the process can actually weaken the person at the receiving end.

As technology refines its ability to compensate for other losses,  it is worth thinking of what it is like to interact in a major way with a technological device.    Too much technology or the wrong technology can make a person feel useless.    Being involved in the choice and adaptation process with one’s own technological devices can help alleviate many feelings of alienation.

When decisions are made for us, there is a wide range of possible reactions, often depending on our initial gadget tolerance. I have talked with numbers of people with disabilities about their reactions and they run the gamut from ecstatic commitment to apathy and hostility.  How the technology came to them is often as important as the equipment itself.  The successful introduction of technology involves a partnership that activates the consumer’s role.

Why have many people with disabilities used low tech devices?    Low tech concepts and language are closer to people with disabilities. Low tech is almost always cheaper, and therefore within the scope of an individual to own.  The user often has more personal control over low tech equipment and its maintenance. These are crucial variables in trying to evaluate what values are lost or gained through the introduction of technology.

Criteria for increasing independence with new technology

A key value to consumer success, hinges around its ability to increase or reduce independence. When new technology is being planned or introduced, some questions we like to ask about independence are:

  • Will what I am doing/planning make people more or less independent in their physical ability? Is it worth their energy and effort to use it? Do people have to ask for assistance or permission to get set up, to do things, to control their activity?
  • Is the consumer having problems with the technology? Is someone else or the actual environment having incompatibility or problems with that technology?
  • Are people able to finance the technology independently? Will it be a source of generating income or training skills for that in the future? Does it help to save money in the home by shortcuts, more independent functioning?
  • Are people more independent within their family/home situation? Does new technology allow more interaction/communication? Does it make a more active style possible? What incentives are there to use it?
  • Are people more independent in their own attitudes? Does new tech give them a feeling of being in control, taking charge etc.? Can they see how this is one of their tools towards achieving other goals?
  • Are people involved in initiating and carrying through decisions on their own use of technology? Are they satisfied? Does the consumer want a change? Does someone else want a change?

‘Normalising’ technology

All of these questions are relative to different individuals and different cultures – in many ways, the new technology brings a lot of unspoken assumptions about the values such as ‘independence’ which will vary from one country to another. So too will judgements about whether a person’s use of technology is ‘normalising’:

  • Is this appropriate for this person, their age and maturity level, their gender? Would I feel comfortable going to school or a restaurant with this?
  • Is this a non-isolating process? Does it lead towards more, not less interaction and communication? Would I want to use this with my friends?
  • Is this non-overloading? Can the processes be grasped, physically, emotionally, intellectually immediately or with training?
  • Is this non-stigmatising?  Would I want to carry this around with me or be seen wearing this?
  • When we are excited about the potential for introducing new technology can we honestly ask, “Is nothing better than the wrong thing?”