A blog about universal and accessible design

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Access, info, technology

A few weeks ago a NY Times video/article on "Expanding Options for the Disabled" addressed the expense and difficult insurance issues around people with disabilities being able to access improved technological tools for speech, reading, etc. A lot of these fairly simple tools -- like speaking computer technologies -- are not standard on PCs and are not covered by insurance. The problem in many cases with assistive technology development is not designing or inventing them, it's making them available and accessible. One strategy is "universal" design as a marketing strategy, e.g. making something like touchscreens that are an appealing technology for anyone and also advance usability for people with disabilities. Another is low-tech, affordable tools that might be less technologically advanced but which people with disabilities have been making and adapting at home or in small production for many years.

In access hacker Liz Henry report on visiting Whirlwind Wheelchairs - a great review of the work Whirlwind does making wheelchairs for (and in) developing-world contexts - she describes conversations about sharing DIY tinkering/engineering info. One of the Whirlwind folks mentions having piles of plans and materials but no where to put them; they also discuss how many people have small technical solutions that could be shared with fairly simple instructions, but no easy way to distribute. Liz writes,

I ended up feeling like we were all talking about a similar vision and project. A central repository, managed by a trustable institution that won’t go away, with the information portable, translatable, and with room for comments and input and tagging. Phase 1 might be simply scanning rather a lot of information and sticking it up somewhere that it could be indexed by search engines. Metadata could be added and good OCR correction done on the PDFs, by people hired from a grant and/or by volunteers coordinated in the manner of open source software projects. Phase 3, probably at the same time as phase 2, would be builders and makers, trying some of the projects and posting feedback, which might just be a photo or two of the build or the result, with a paragraph of description. Phase 4 we can think of as the times people improve on an original design in their subsequent builds.

I think Liz really hits on one of the big issues in assistive technology development: information and access. My sense is that there are parts of the design world who are interested in simple instructions, easy DIY products (like ReadyMade, which publishes simple home/furnishing hacks as well as selling mail-order kits; and the whole Make/Instructables world). It really strikes me that this is what Graham Pullin's Design Meets Disability misses (though it raises other interesting issues) - the reality of how people get things, afford them, make them. I'd love to see more about groups like Whirlwind that operate outside of the giant medical technology company world. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that they are operating outside of the US health care system.

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