• Philip J Connolly

Liberation Technology

My friend Neil always won the fancy dress. No one who saw it can forget his K9 dog costume. Like Jodie Whittaker the current Dr Who he could I am sure have made his own sonic screwdriver. However he isn’t likely to be the next Dr Who. Neil is partially sighted and works for B and Q. At his depot Neil was expected to join in regular stock takes. Neil had a problem, he couldn’t read the labels attached to the items on the higher racks. Fortunately Neil could solder circuit boards. Putting his abilities to use he made a scanner that could scan a bar code and describe the materials via an audio output. Now Neil is well above average intelligence and few people can overcome their own barriers to the labour market in the way that he did. However supposing they only needed the ability to describe what they needed to someone like Neil and he, her or their team then made the gadget?

The thought stayed with me. I was aware that in some quarters there was a certain sniffy view that technology was premised upon fixing disabled people but the premise could just as easily be control by the user or enhancing their adaptation skills. Could technology even change the institutionalised power dynamic? In an emergency such as a flood, civil emergency staff are taught to think of disabled people as the vulnerable people. This often seems to raise debates over whether time and effort should be spent saving us or not. However there are wheelchairs that can float. It is conceivable that if the wheelchair user had a floating wheelchair it could be that person who goes for help. The wheelchair user then has a solution to everyone else’s problem.

Then I started to think about the emergency itself. When I first began this chain of thought it seemed like all emergencies were localised, unpredictable and involved few victims. That was before the financial crisis or the pandemic or runaway climate change. Now it is worth looking at the fact that in the 21st century the emergencies tend to be widespread, predictable and affect millions of people. It was Beck who first alerted us to a better understanding of risk. I don’t know if Beck would think the same way but I began to think that the way to reduce the risk that emergencies posed to disabled people was to train them as early respondents. Technology that disabled people might already have or come to use could then be enhanced to have value to everyone else caught up in the emergency. By this logic the test for the technology was did it alter the power dynamic between disabled and non-disabled people to shift in the former’s favour.

One such technology was the “In the Making” project described by Dr Ursula Hurley of Salford University in her book of the same name. The project gave disabled people access to digital fabrication equipment such as 3 D printers and scanners and supported workshop attenders to develop ideas, design these ideas and then print them. It tested an approach which sought to democratise the technology by giving mainly unemployed disabled people early access to its possibilities. Some attendees had made use of open source software to download the designs for small reasonable adjustments such as finger grips. One obvious next step could have been to teach computer coding so they could design more aids or to otherwise connect them to designers in industries such as biomechanics. Naturally it doesn’t have to be about aids, commercial goods but simply expressions of the creative impulse drew some people to come back again and again.

Of course it is about the word access in two ways; the technology was accessible and the workshops were free to attend. As the technology evolves it is becoming easier to use and cheaper to buy. Progressively more disadvantaged people get to connect to the technology and use it to earn a living hence the liberating nature of it. Many readers will have technology on their business premises that owners only use a third of the day and spend money the rest of the day on guarding it. Could they not reverse that and instead train disabled people on the equipment and use some of the money spent guarding it on instructor’s time instead to teach people how to use it.

Technology can be a powerful driver of further possibilities e.g. microwave ovens have been a prop for many older or disabled people to live longer in their own home but have also given rise to new food processing companies producing lines of microwave food.

I recall one day trying to buy a ticket from a machine and struggling with the small print low contrast read out. I went back to my office and rang my access expert to tell him my brainwave of a solution. “What we need, Hugh,” I said, “Is a credit card type chip that carries your access requirements and the machine then reads it and alters its read out formats to make the machine accessible to you.” “Oh he said, you mean SNAPI – the Special Needs Application Platform Interface.” Slightly crestfallen I realised I wasn’t being in the least bit innovative. Maybe with technology you have to think the future to even be in the present. From there it is only a sidestep to the future of the policy.

The national disability strategy currently in preparation ought to have a goal of accelerating these possibilities. To do this it needs to have the following objectives: 1) close the digital exclusion gap, 2) fund more disabled people to learn to code, 3) support skill mentoring schemes such as Barclays “digital eagles” or Microsoft’s six days a year community volunteer option, 4 ) extend and promote the Access to Work scheme accordingly, 5) establish an asset based poverty reduction scheme an element of which would be access to digital fabrication laboratories and 6) involve disabled people as pioneers and first testers of the technology.

The Disability Resilience Network sees technology as a driver of disruption, innovation and resilience. Do you work as a technologist or work for a tech company? Can you align your technology advancements to the progress of our network’s goal of an inclusive UK economy?

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