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In this age of innovation, technology has come to support our lives in countless ways, many of them altogether unexpected. Consider the possibility of a driverless car. Those who work on innovating this technology claim that it will reduce the number of accidents among users, may be able to reduce fossil fuel usage, and may enhance the quality of life for those riders who no longer have to personally engage with stressful traffic patterns. However, would we consider the driverless car innovation to be “beneficial” to a person in a wheelchair if it were not accessible for those in wheelchairs?
In a recent blog for Forbes Magazine, Sujeeth Kanuganti considers these and other reasons that technology developers should consider accessibility in their new product designs. The reasons for accessibility in new designs range from the ethical and practical to the economic and innovative. Hearing accessibility is a dimension of product design that often becomes an afterthought, but the following reasons are evidence that accessibility should be pushed to the front of the considerations among developers and innovators.
One of the most convincing arguments for accessibility in product design is purely ethical. New technology innovations should be available to everyone! Just as we all contribute society’s resources to make innovation possible—teaching in schools, providing infrastructure and public services, and creating an economic environment in which innovation is possible—each person in a society should be able to reap the benefits of those innovations. Although this ethical defense is compelling, unfortunately it is seldom the case. Many of the cutting edge technological innovations in society are available only to the elites who have the wealth to buy them. Accessibility is another way to thing about providing equal access to inventions that are already unequally distributed in society.
In a practical sense, full adoption of new inventions makes them function more properly. Those apps and innovations that rely on user-generated data will be more effective and functional with more people using them. A great proportion of the world population has a disability or other disabling condition that prevents the use of some devices. Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control report that a quarter of working and non-working U.S. adults have a disability that somehow limits their participation in the activities of daily life, and the number is only expected to climb. With such a large proportion of the population unable to utilize new technology, they are an untapped resource for user-generated content.
Although these reasons may be the most compelling, technology developers and designers tend to think in terms of untapped markets rather than unjust access. With more potential users, these innovations can be purchased more widely, returning capital to the research and development phase for further innovation. This ongoing circuit of consumption and product development spurs on future economic growth as well as freshly innovative technologies. Though the ethical argument is more compelling, the economic benefit of greater consumer markets cannot be ignored.
A final consideration in support of extending accessibility concerns to a greater number of technologies has to do with something we know about the process of innovation. As we have already seen in existing research and development projects, innovation tends to beget further innovation. For example, in the process of devising an app for food delivery in rural areas, we might stumble on a way to coordinate rotating crops among multiple farms. Similarly, developing accessibility innovations to benefit some can help us stumble on other features that will be benefit other users or even altogether fresh innovations we never expected. As innovations continue to improve our lives, they may have an additive, multiplicative, or even exponential relationship with one another.
As you can see, this nexus of reasoning for accessibility development in technology leaves little room for doubt. When it comes to accessibility for the hearing impaired, some solutions are simple additions to existing technology. Other developments require devoted resources from the private and public sectors to make sure that those new devices to benefit “society” indeed benefit as many members of society as possible. Advocacy from within and without the product design communities will need to join forces to make sure the future is ever-better for those with a diversity of abilities.
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