Technology is for People, Not the Other Way Round

15 May 2019
Shadi Abou-Zahara

By Shadi Abou-ZahraAccessibility Strategy and Technology Specialist - World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)  Web Accessibility Initiative


Admittedly, I love technology and the opportunities it provides for many people. As a quadriplegic (I’m physically impaired in both arms and legs), I was only able to complete school and later on university with the help of laptop computers. It allowed me to take notes, write homework, and organise myself in ways that I could not with pen and paper. The advances since in voice and image recognition, in internet connectivity, and in computing power are breathtaking. It is amazing to think that the mobile phone in my little pocket is far superior to my bulky laptop from back in school, and at a fraction of the cost too.

Yet despite all the opportunities that technology provides, we must also recognise and address the many challenges and risks that it poses. For example, with all the contactless payment systems and automated teller machines (ATMs), it only takes a terminal that is mounted slightly too high to keep me locked inside the car park until I can pay my ticket. This was not the case when car parks were operated by real humans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating against these technological advances. I’m only asking for the terminal to be mounted at an appropriate height – to make the technology usable for me.

As technology continues to evolve at lightning speed, we also see the opportunities and challenges continue to multiply. A friend of mine was recently using a mobile app that uses artificial intelligence techniques to recognise objects and text in front of the camera. He was using it to orient himself in a hotel he had just checked into. The app explained the layout of the hallways and read out the door numbers on the signs so that he could find his room as a blind person traveling alone for business. This is mind blowing considering that mainstream deployment and use of artificial intelligence is only in its early stages.

Yet there are caveats with this technological achievement. The fact that my friend is using this app is an indication for the provider of that mobile app, the operating system vendor, and potentially also the mobile phone operator that my friend is blind. We are leaving more and bigger digital footprints as we use emerging new technologies, and it is not always clear how this data is used today and tomorrow. With artificial intelligence permeating decision-making processes, this is a true and imminent threat. For example, because many people with disabilities are currently unemployed, a machine-learning system may wrongly conclude that my friend is less suitable for employment because he also has a disability.

So, what is the common theme across all these anecdotes and how do we ensure that technology is accessible? Several actions are outlined in the European Disability Forum’s (EDF) report on emerging technologies. Yet if I were to pick one, I would start with involvement. Regardless of whether it is high or low-tech, lack of awareness and lack of involvement of end-users throughout design and development processes lead to barriers. Like the wrongly mounted terminal and the faulty machine-learning hiring system – products and services are made accessible by involving people with disabilities. Inclusive design needs to be the guiding principle so that technology is no longer a matter of plug and pray.

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