The Role of Technology in Enhancing Daily Life for People with Disabilities: A Historical and Modern Perspective 

May 14, 2024

Written by: Julia Franklin, CLO 

Now more than ever, technology is an integral part of the human experience. From simple tools to complex systems, we all interact with multiple types of technology daily. However, in the context of disability, technology transforms from a tool for daily tasks to often an essential mechanism for achieving independence and equality.

Although technology can transform an environment’s accessibility, it’s also important to consider how each person with a disability desires vastly different technology based on their current and often ever-changing needs. Yes, technology and accessibility can enhance the lives of people with disabilities, but continuing to listen to lived experiences and innovating with these contextual and fluid options in mind is essential. A person’s needs are not only informed by their disability but also an individual’s response to their own self-perception and stigma that technology reflects.

As one disabled author, Ashley Shew, points out in her book, “Against Technoableism” there’s a fine line between using technology to empower an individual and using it to enforce normalcy. She says, “Disabled people are often on the front lines of tech users; we are considered the first testing ground for new tech… While our lives are deeply entangled with technologies of all kinds (not just fancy ones: left-handed scissors or walkers or hearing aids), disabled people are rarely included in discussions about what technology means and how it integrates into daily life, what it means to be human in our modern world. Sometimes technology is seen as redeeming our lives: nondisabled people believe—​and expect us to believe—​that technology will “solve” the problem of our disability and save us, or those like us, in the future.”

Given Shew’s poignant reminder, this misconception can lead to the belief that technology will simply “solve” the challenges of disability. Understanding the role of technology in disability requires a historical perspective, recognizing that technology is ever-evolving and serves as a tool rather than a cure-all and will likely need to change and adapt over an individual’s life. A nuanced appreciation of individual experiences with assistive technologies can help society develop a more informed perspective on future technological innovations and decision-making.


Technology & Disability: A Historical Perspective


Understanding Technology in its Core

Let’s take a step back and fully remind ourselves of exactly what we mean by “technology”. In its simplest form, technology can be defined as the application of knowledge and tools to solve problems or achieve goals. It encompasses any tool or technique, system, or method that humans use to create, manipulate, or control their environment. This includes everything from the invention of simple tools like the wheel or lever to complex systems like computers and smartphones. Essentially, technology is about using tools and techniques to improve efficiency, productivity, and capabilities.

One of my favorite historical examples of technology is Jacquard Loom, which automated the process of complex pattern weaving using punched cards, a technique that would later influence the development of early computers. Watch a quick video of Loom’s precursor to the computer. Understanding that “technology” advancement isn’t just about the need for smarter phones, computers, or artificial intelligence (AI), is foundational to understanding the role of “tech” for the disability community.

From Assistive Tools to Mainstream Solutions

In the realm of disability, assistive technology (AT) refers to any device, tool, software, or system that enhances, sustains, or improves the functional abilities of individuals with disabilities. Again, this “tech” can be as simple as a cardboard communication board, or even as complex as a customized prosthetic device, a switch, a screen reader, hearing aids, wheelchairs, adaptive scissors, or high-tech software…among many other examples.

The history of AT development is vast and ever-expanding. This article from The University of Iowa summarizes many of the foundations and dates of well-known AT.

If you look carefully, there is a recurring pattern in technological innovations. In many cases, what was initially created for disability support often finds broader applications and crosses over to mainstream use. This highlights the universal benefit of designing with accessibility in mind, a practice that not only aids those with disabilities but also enhances the usability of technology for everyone.

Most notably, ramps/curb cuts created for wheelchair access are also an effective solution for strollers, shopping carts, rolling luggage, etc. Closed captioning was created for the deaf/hearing impaired community and now continues to serve people who simply need audio turned off in public/quiet places or to help non-native speakers of a language. The same goes for audiobooks, automatic door openers & the electric toothbrush.


Current Landscapes & Personal Stories


Listening to Experts

Despite the strides in technology, challenges remain, particularly in how these technologies are perceived and implemented. Yes, innovation and more high-tech creations are wonderful and welcome for the future of AT, but we can’t forget about all the different types of “tech” that may be the best fit for an individual.

Again, in Shew’s book “Against Technoableism,” she challenges the prevailing notion that technology should “fix” disabilities. Shew, a professor, and self-described “technologized disabled person,” argues that such a perspective overlooks the real, lived experiences of disabled persons who may not desire to conform to ‘normal’ standards but instead seek tools that assist them in living their lives as they are. Instead, she advocates for a shift in perception where the disabled community is recognized as experts in their own needs and desires. Let’s listen to some of the experts in the field and their lived experiences and how tech has informed their lives and decision-making.

Voices from the Community

Sarah Todd Hammer, a disabled college student, often shares her journey of finding adaptive items for the kitchen to support her independence in meal preparation. Although this adaptive cutting board is helpful, she often shares about the recurring challenge to make cooking accessible across multiple meals that she desires to cook. She requires multiple forms of AT to independently prepare a variety of meals.

John Samuel shares his personal and professional journey after diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease in his book, Don’t Ask the Blind Guy for Directions. His personal hesitation and resistance to cane adoption was a wonderful example of how people with disabilities don’t always want to immediately use “technology” simply out of stigma and self-perception.

Libby Ward, well known for her social media platform, Diary of an Honest Mom – recently shared her personal journey of finally choosing to get hearing aids after over 10 years of resisting the technology. She discusses the compounding sensory overload of adding hearing aids into her life as someone who also has ADHD.

Ali Ingersoll, a corporate disability consultant/TEDx Speaker and powerchair user, sheds incredible insight on accessible travel with a mobility disability in regard to reliability, maintenance, and inadequate support for her assistive tech.


Looking Forward: Importance of Inclusive Design


The exploration of technology’s role in enhancing the daily lives of people with disabilities reveals not only its transformative potential but also the complexities inherent in its application. Ashley Shew’s insights remind us of the danger in viewing technology solely to “fix” disabilities, urging instead a shift towards recognizing the diverse needs and desires of the disabled community. Personal narratives, of individuals living with a variety of disabilities, underscore the importance of understanding individual experiences and preferences when developing assistive technologies.

Looking forward, the imperative of inclusive design becomes clear—a process that involves active engagement with disabled individuals to ensure that technology truly empowers and provides genuine solutions. As we continue to listen, learn, and innovate, let us keep disability at the forefront of tech innovation, recognizing its universal relevance and the invaluable insights it offers into creating a more inclusive and equitable future.

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