The development of new technology with all its lights, beeps, bells, touch screens and possibilities are coming so fast and furious today that it is hard to discover what is of value and what is just another distracting toy. There are many things in the consumer space that pretend to be of value and could be if they had not been rushed to market before they were ready. Many great concepts have been lost or set aside because the finance side of development pushed the genius side of the house to put a product into the market before it was truly ready. People with disabilities have been disappointed many times in a new product because it did not really do what we were counting on it to do. The disability marketplace has been cautious where promises from technology companies are concerned. This is because vaporware has been a problem since the early 1970’s when a big electronics manufacturer promised a TV built for the blind that was never delivered. Companies that show prototypes off are often taken back at the lack of enthusiasm that their investment is met with by the disability community. It is not the genius of today we do not trust, but rather the experiences of the past that give us cause to wait and see. Accessibility is hard to do, but even harder if the product team is not guided by a person with a disability that understands what is really needed. Wandering through the adaptive technology shows over the past year it is easy to be amazed at the quantity of new ideas, concepts and just plain gadgets out there. One must ask, how many came from a need identified by a person with a disability and how many were just dreamed up by an engineer with time on their hands? I seek technology that solves a real access, life, or policy need. Perhaps technology developers and leaders in the disability world should collectively identify issues at the access, life, and policy levels so solutions can be sought. Perhaps annual adaptive technology shows could seek to put the right people in the room to consider the question and guide future development.
Just imagine the result if those who understand the disability access needs at the life and policy levels were to meet with those who have the skills, funding and marketability to take on challenges. What would be the result? Would we see employment, transportation, community life and other barriers overcome by new ideas? Technologies of true importance.
I am not saying that many technologies entering the market are not already truly important. I am only suggesting that bringing together the right people from the disability and technology worlds might see the emergence of specifically purposed technologies designed to solve emerging or long-standing issues. This might be a different path from that which is the norm that sees the development of new ideas on a more circumstantial or haphazard basis at present.
One of the worst circumstances that takes place is when we as people with disabilities become dependent on technology from a provider and then they let us down. Often this happens because changes in the technology landscape makes the current device we are using obsolete and the fix is not as easy as an upgrade or patch.
An example of this are changes to the internet security protocols that made some note takers for the blind unable to interface with many websites. Some devices like the HIMS U2 could not be upgraded to solve the problem. Many blind students and professionals who use such devices like myself, were just stuck until a new product was available.
Then came the much anticipated HIMS Polaris. A device that would solve access issues to the internet and bring us many steps closer to the features working professionals, who happen to be blind, need. Rushed to market? Yes, without question. Given the number of significant bugs. Not only that, but features like the database that had been in previous HIMS devices were not included. There was apparently no thought given to the needs of the people who had been depending on these devices.
The HIMS Polaris is still a device full of critical bugs that slow down work and require the use of older devices like the HIMS U2 for some of us to keep working. Here is a concept. What if technology developers came to an understanding that many of us have real jobs where we depend on our technology. That these are not five thousand-dollar toys. What if they considered the needs of the users and did not make decisions based on a rush to market to beat the other guy. That would be a truly important move.
Douglas George Towne
Chairman, Disability Relations Group