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Expanding your interests: Disability and innovation

In this video, Gerard Goggin and Wayne Hawkins describe the challenges to accessible information and communications technology, and some ways forward.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Accessing technology.
GERARD GOGGIN: Technology comes with a lot of myths. So technology is a bit like a cargo cult. We think, well, technology will be our salvation, it will save us. It will help us do things, and particularly around disabilities. With each technology that gets delivered and publicised, often we hear that it’s going to be fabulous for people with disabilities. It’s going to solve this problem, it’s going to solve that problem. But really, the reality is that in designing anything, you’re making a series of choices. And often, new technologies have new sets of exclusions in them. And so an example of this is the second generation digital mobile phones.
So mobile phones had actually been developed following the telephone so that you could actually use them if you were a hearing aid user. So they had a technological system and a standard to do that. And when the digital mobile phones, second generation digital mobile phones were introduced, then because of the interference in those, that meant for hearing aid users, they couldn’t actually use the phone in the same way. So there’s many of these examples where, when you introduce a technology, actually you can then introduce often exclusions around that. I think that one of the major barriers to technology and it becoming more accessible, in some ways has been a failure of the imagination.
There’s been a lack of recognition of the full range of desires and needs and requirements of users. So the designers of technology have typically not been as diverse as they should be, haven’t included a great deal of people with disabilities. And so this has meant that software has been inaccessible. So a classic example is the Windows software, the Windows operating system. So a battle had to be fought by disability advocates to actually get that kind of system to be accessible. So actually, there’s a complex relationship here around accessibility and technology, whereas often I think people– a bit like the built environment– you think, oh, well, there’s a standard about how many disability toilets we have. Well, we read the standard.
We put that disability toilet in. And looking at the toilet, you’ll thinking, well, it’s up a flight of stairs and you can’t get in the front door. How did that happen? Whereas I think we should think of access as relational and dynamic. And it involves a negotiation. It involves, actually, a conversation with people. And it involves a set of creative negotiations that designers, architects, builders, and users are all actually used to doing. But for some reason, when it comes to disability accessibility, often we think, well, it requires this kind of thing, this fix, where actually, that’s only part of the story.
WAYNE HAWKINS: One of the ways that we can ensure that everybody is connected and that everybody has access to new and emerging technologies and new digital services is to make sure that those services are designed with everybody’s needs in mind and adopting the principle of universal design, where our products and services are developed in ways where everybody can use them, or in ways where, with minor modification, people can use their assistive technologies to connect to those products and services. And that’s going to be paramount as a way to make sure everybody’s included.
What’s happened predominately in the past has been this ongoing race of trying to catch up for people with disability as new technologies emerge and have not been designed with everybody’s needs from the ground up. In the first instance, it means that they’re not able to engage immediately in the use and the benefits of new technologies. They have to wait until those technologies are retrofitted and made functional for them. A second aspect of that is it’s very expensive. It’s expensive for the manufacturers and in turn, that means it’s expensive for consumers with disability to access those retrofitted technologies– in the same way as when we have buildings that have been built without accessibility in mind.
One of the great things of some of the newer technology is that it is more accessible coming out of the box, things like the Apple iPhone and the iPad, where they come out of the box and they could be used by people who are blind, they have a very good features for people with physical disabilities. So I think the progress is coming along, where we’re getting things that out of the box are more accessible. In time, they will become more affordable for people with disabilities. And retrofitting, whilst it’s still the predominant way in which technology is made useful and functional for people with disability, will become less and less important, because products and technology will be accessible to begin with.
GERARD: In thinking about how do you get social transformation around technology and disability, a starting place is often the legal frameworks. So we now actually have a quite good international legal framework in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. So in a sense, that now gives us an international treaty. It actually has some quite good provisions about rights to technology for people with disability. But we are now in a situation where we’re thinking, well, how’s that going to go down at the coal face, in practise? So then I suppose you have domestic legislation. So you have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015.
You have a lot of general disability discrimination acts, or you have human rights acts, or you have particular provisions in legislation. So it became common by the end of the 1990s, for instance, to have Telecommunications Acts, where there was a requirement not only to make telephones accessible to everyone in a population, but to make them accessible in a disability sense– usable by everyone. And then with web accessibility, for instance, there was a famous case, the Sydney Olympic committee case, where a blind person took the Sydney Olympic organising committee to the Human Rights Commission to say, look, your website’s not accessible. And that really publicised awareness of web accessibility.
But I suppose the trick is, with the legislation, we can probably typically say it’s not strong enough. But even for what it is, it then really requires other interlocking ways in which that is activated. And so I suppose some of it is policy and regulation, but some of it in some ways has to do with the cultures around– the legal cultures around disability. There really has to be a willingness on governments to step up and to put this legislation into place. And that’s kind of complex– governments around the world are trying to put web accessibility in place. And in some ways, web accessibility is quite well defined or aspects of it are. And they’re trying to put that in place.
And that’s slow progress. It’s even slower for mobile web accessibility and mobile accessibility. But that’s one particular instance. So I think you need a strong governmental role. And then I think you need a strong role for then organisations who are involved in that, and a willingness to be involved, not just to see it as compliance and risk– oh, we need to comply with their legislation, but to see it as an opportunity for innovation as well.
WAYNE: There’s a lot of work that’s been done in the past around disability access in the areas of access to premises, in the areas of access to public transport, in the areas of captioning for television for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. And as those advocacy organisations and groups have made significant progress in that area, there needs to be the same advocacy around accessible ICT, accessible information and communications technology. It’s great that some companies are doing it off their own back. They see a need for it and they see a value for them in doing it.
But I think we also need to ensure that the government is putting in public policies that protect the rights and provide the access for all citizens to be able to use technology. And I think in the Australian context, particularly, it’s important with the new Digital Transformation Office, which the government’s just created. If 20% of the population, because of impairment or disability, are unable to access online government services, then we’re going to have a huge problem with people being left behind, excluded. The digital divide will become even greater.
So I think it’s very important that we have an awareness that advocacy and representation of the needs of consumers with disability is paramount in making sure that government provides those safety nets that are going to be important to make sure we all get carried along in this digital transformation.

Some disability studies scholars argue that working with disability — rather than treating it as an add-on — can drive innovation in designing a more accessible world.

In the above video, Gerard Goggin, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, describes how disability intersects with technology in terms of access. He points out that whenever we introduce any new technology, there is often a new set of exclusions around that. This means that people with disabilities have often had to advocate for greater accessibility of existing technologies.

Wayne Hawkins of the Australian Communication Consumer Action Network, himself an advocate for accessible information and communications technology (ICT), emphasises the importance of universal design — or designing with the needs of diverse users in mind from the start. He notes that when people with disabilities aren’t included in design considerations, this can result in long delays in accessing a new product and greater expenses for everyone.

Gerard and Wayne then discuss the usefulness of international human rights frameworks like the UNCRPD, the importance of domestic and local laws like Disability Discrimination Acts and Telecommunications Acts, and the importance of advocacy in the area of ICT access. They emphasise how important it is for organisations and governments to recognise accessibility as an opportunity for innovation, not just as something they need to legally comply with.

Gerard has written about how such shifts are already occurring. He suggests that by linking disability to the language of innovation, we can move towards making accessibility a central part of discourses.

If you’d like, read his essay below, and see if you agree.

Gerard Goggin. (2008) “Innovation and Disability.” M/C Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3.

Talking points

  • What are the pros and cons of retro-fitting versus designing with the needs of diverse users in mind?
  • In what ways do you think viewing accessibility as a driver of innovation might help to challenge different assumptions about people with disabilities in society?
  • How does thinking about disability give us a different lens for thinking about innovation?
  • What are some of the advocacy efforts around accessible ICT in your own national or local context?

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