Technology cannot solve the problems created by ableism
“Did you read this story in the Stanford Affordability Report? ‘smart cane ‘who uses robotics? Wasn’t that cool? Whenever disability technology articles are published, I am asked my thoughts and feelings about the innovation at hand. People expect me – a blind person – to share their enthusiasm. Most therefore find my frustration and lack of enthusiasm puzzled. They fail to understand that amid the excitement that accompanies the application of technology to the disability community, the real harm – ableism – is often overlooked.
This “smart cane” is a good example of ableism-ignoring technology. The developers intend to help the blind community. However, this product is not necessary for blind people to live and work successfully. In fact, this product can ultimately be harmful. The canes show blind people what obstacles are on our paths and on what terrain we are walking. The heavier weight of the “smart cane” puts excessive strain on the wrists and arms of users. Canes like mine weigh significantly less than a pound, while the article says this “smart cane” weighs three pounds. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome often result from muscle fatigue and repetitive movements. Using such a heavy cane every day could be catastrophic.
This article emphasizes the “affordable price” of the “smart cane”, saying that similar products cost $ 6,000, and this one costs only $ 400. Maybe they don’t realize that blind people can get canes for free here – it’s not much more affordable than that. Nearly 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2019; it is the only income that many of us receive. Many Americans with disabilities live at home or with caregivers, or work for lower wages or in sheltered workshops. They don’t have $ 400 to spare, and I also don’t find it easy to part with $ 400. I’d rather save this money to help with moving expenses after graduation, donate it to a philanthropic organization, or save it for my hypothetical children’s college education.
People get caught up in the “smart” aspect of technology like the “smart cane”. My cane isn’t smart, but I don’t need it. The article and accompanying video talk about a wheel pulling the user around obstacles, and while I certainly don’t like encountering objects, it’s good to know those objects are there. I don’t want to skate along the sidewalks without knowing where these tables are outside of Old Union, for example. Maybe I’m trying to meet a friend or use a traffic light as a landmark. The wheel on the tip of this rod could interfere with the textural elements of the terrain. People often ask me if the sound of the metal tip of my cane dragging on the ground creaks my ears, and while I find it slightly annoying, there is more to it than that. It’s good to know if I’m walking on tile, brick, or carpet. Many other blind people would agree. Awareness is good, people shouldn’t take it away from us.
Even Stanford’s “smart cane” videos show the ableism and inaccessibility that permeates our society. Videos aren’t portrayed in audio, so while the developers believe they’re engaging diversity and increasing accessibility, they’re not doing it right. It is extremely hypocritical to brag about accessibility efforts for blind people in videos that do not contain audio descriptions.
In addition, the “smart cane” assumes mistaken notions of quality of life. The developers cite improvements in walking speed for sighted and blind users when using this cane, and the video claims that “it can provide a significant improvement in quality of life due to the improved mobility”.
This kind of assumption is deeply disturbing and offensive, as one person or group of people projects their image of “quality of life” onto people with disabilities. Falling into this pattern can be dangerous. This “smart cane” is perhaps less lethal than other examples of the same behavior. For example, just as recently as this year, people with disabilities were denied vital health care when doctors projected their fanatical views of “quality of life” onto patients with disabilities. Both are examples of ableism. No one should assume that other people have a poorer “quality of life” just because they live differently. The developers of the “smart cane” are probably trying to be helpful, but there are better ways to accomplish this goal using products that already exist.
Canitism and inaccessibility have always been huge social problems. Developers believe that they can solve these problems by creating something new, or that they can bypass future problems through innovation. However, technology is not always the solution. Here are some better ones.
In terms of ‘quality of life’, people with disabilities do not have equal access to aspects of society due to inaccessibility, and this is much more damaging than the inability to walk quickly or the existence of disabilities. Despite the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some buildings do not have wheelchair accessible rooms or proper Braille signage, even here at Stanford.
This inaccessibility extends to the Internet: there is no legislation specifically making web accessibility compulsory. There is only one set of unapplied guidelines. Making websites accessible could greatly improve the “quality of life” for people with disabilities. We should focus less on innovation and more on establishing effective legislation and enforcing it.
Then the biggest problem: ableism. It exists in all aspects of society, although others choose not to recognize it. Valid people physically manipulate people with disabilities without asking us for their consent. People drag the disabled through the streets, or catch us to show us how to find things – the examples are endless. People with disabilities are sometimes forced to work in sheltered workshops and / or for lower wages. Workplaces that pay above the minimum wage still sometimes pay people with disabilities less than our non-disabled counterparts. Assistive technology is not affordable, and developers are focusing on high-tech solutions rather than making what already exists more affordable. There is a high rate of sexual assault against people with disabilities because we are seen as inferior and we are not taught what consent is. Much public transportation in America is not accessible, and ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber still deny passengers with disabilities. These are just a few of the endless examples of problems that urgently need to be resolved. Let’s get rid of these high tech big horses and instead spend our energy on solving these problems.