How Can Assistive Technology Developers Earn Disabled People’s Trust?

“The best thing non-disabled people can do when inventing or innovating products for disabled folks is to actively seek out and include disabled people at every step of the design and testing process. If they don’t do that, I give them no credibility whatsoever, because clearly they see their job as to fix a problem on their expertise alone, however flawed or lacking their expertise may be.”

I’m in a couple of Facebook groups where someone has been promoting a new “wearable” cane for blind toddlers. Instead of being handheld like the conventional white cane, the device straps onto a child’s waist and blocks the child from running into obstacles.

At first, the concept seemed a bit intriguing. After all, there are times when both blind children and adults could appreciate a hands-free cane alternative.

Unfortunately, though, the rhetoric that the device inventor uses has become a major turnoff for many blind adults, parents of blind children, and cane instructors-the markets that she most needs to impress. Specifically, the device inventor defends her creation by painting a bleak picture of early childhood for blind children, claiming not only that all blind children experience developmental delays, but that no child can use a conventional cane “properly” until the age of 6-despite ample evidence to the contrary. She deflects practical questions about the safety of her device or its applicability in different environments. She uses buzzwords that are not part of the broader blindness vernacular, like “mobility visually impaired.” In short, she seems wholly out of touch with her market.

This may be a somewhat extreme example, but there’s a broader pattern here. Designers, engineers, and students are always coming out with new ideas to make our lives better. But, not all of these ideas are ultimately good ones. Disabled people have certain criteria we use to evaluate new technology concepts and to decide whether or not we want to get on-board as potential customers, testers, or co-designers.

So what distinguishes a technology team that wins our trust from one that doesn’t? I asked the folks on the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group for their ideas. Here are some common themes that emerged:

*Disabled input: The single biggest theme mentioned was that “good” tech teams involve disabled people in the entire design process “from brainstorming on up.” Centering the lived experiences of disabled people can help avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned below. And, involving members of the target user market is the single best way to ensure that there will actually be a real market for the finished product. Tech teams can earn our trust by inviting us into positions of influence and compensating us appropriately for our expertise. By contrast, tech teams that wait to consult us until they need beta testers tend to arouse more suspicion.

*Product fills a real need: We often hear about tech concepts and think, “That already exists” or “That’s a fix for something that isn’t broken.” Sometimes low-tech, mainstream solutions already solve the problem that a new high-tech gadget would solve at ten times the cost. Or, the “problem” might not be a problem to begin with. Good innovations are those that build upon existing solutions and strategies disabled people already use, augmenting their effectiveness or filling gaps that current technologies do not yet fill.

*Language and attitudes: Group members pointed out that we are more likely to trust a technology team who uses respectful, empowering language about disabled people. In contrast, “If the company uses really infantilizing, patronizing, or super-self-congratulatory language to describe their product as the savior of disabled people, I’m immediately turned off.”

*Responsiveness to feedback: Tech teams can earn trust by actively soliciting user feedback and responding promptly to concerns raised. On the other hand, those who “sidestep safety questions and other inquiries like a career politician” will quickly raise red flags.

*Affordability: Many disabled people live near or below the poverty line. Many “niche” assistive technologies are simply priced too high for the average disabled consumer to afford. When a product is priced so high that consumers can only afford it with the assistance of a government agency, the reach of that technology is substantially reduced. On the other hand, technologies that are marketed to the mainstream, not just people with disabilities, can often be made more affordable to the disabled market. For example, the built-in assistive technology on Apple devices is often more affordable than a Windows device running a separate, specialized screen reader or screen magnification.

*Exclusivity vs. inclusivity: Innovations that are part of the mainstream may be more affordable than specialized “exclusive” technology for disabled people, and it also is more attractive by embodying a spirit of inclusion rather than exclusion. For example, instead of designing “special” social networking apps for disabled people, a more acceptable option is to make mainstream social networking apps accessible for all.

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