The Future Is Disabled

Juan Villela

Reading Ashley Shew’s thought-provoking piece in the latest MIT Technology Review felt like unboxing a brand-new toolset for my mind, equipped with a fresh set of lenses to view the future of tech and accessibility. It wasn’t your regular lip service to accessibility. Instead, it was a reality check, pushing us to rethink our assumptions about technology and its role in shaping an inclusive future.

Shew, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and author of the book “Against Technoableism: Rethinking Who Needs Improvement,” lays it down straight. She questions the typical narrative that portrays assistive tech as some magical fix-all solution. Instead, she paints a picture of the natural world where assistive tech is a tool that demands ongoing attention and adaptation from its users.

She rightly points out that the hype around ‘revolutionary’ assistive devices often overshadows the fact that not everyone can access these tools. It’s easy to forget that not everyone has the luxury of a fast internet connection or a shiny new smartphone in their pocket.

And it’s not just about creating tools for the sake of it. We’ve got to consider who we’re building for. Shew uses the example of the US Customs and Border Protection app for asylum seekers to show how a single-pathway approach can fail those who need it the most.

This rings true when thinking about the recent changes in Reddit’s API. As developers, we might think, “Great, new changes, let’s adapt and move on.” But what about those who rely on third-party apps for accessibility? Endless Thread’s recent interview with some Reddit users from the blind community made it clear that these changes were more than just a technical hiccup. They highlighted a more significant issue with accessibility in technology that we can’t afford to ignore.

It’s not enough to acknowledge that we need to improve accessibility. We need to make it a priority. We must stop treating accessibility as an afterthought or a ’nice-to-have.’ We must shift our focus from simply finding individual ‘cures’ to building inclusive infrastructures catering to all.

Shew’s article, in essence, is a rallying cry for a more inclusive future, a future that is ‘disabled’ not in the sense of being impaired but in being different and inclusive. It’s about embracing all the different ways of sensing, processing, moving, understanding, and communicating.

As we chart our course into this future, we must ask ourselves: what kind of future do we want to build? If we rise to Shew’s challenge, we might create a future that’s not just tech-forward but also inclusive, diverse, and accessible. The future may be ‘disabled,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s less promising. On the contrary, it could be the most daring future we’ve ever seen.

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