How Tech has Changed Disability

The life of a person with a disability can still be difficult, but it is improved by tech — as long as you have access, and can afford it.

Seven cartoon people different genders and ages (one in a wheelchair) with the words “Technology Community People Network”
Seven cartoon people different genders and ages (one in a wheelchair) with the words “Technology Community People Network”

Occasionally when I find myself in one of those “dammit why is my life so hard” holes and am trying to struggle my way out of it, I think about how if I had lived only 50 or 100 years earlier how much harder my life would have been (if I even would have been alive after all). This is just looking at the perspective of someone with a disability, I suspect if I added in gender or any of my other intersectional identities it might be too overwhelming to think about.

Pharmaceuticals

Assistive Technology

  • Braille printers
  • Refreshable Braille displays, and
  • Screen readers

have made manual Braille production obsolete, and even automated Braille production significantly less relied upon. The downside of the popularity of screen readers is that the Braille literacy rate has plummeted, labeled a “crisis” by National Federation of the Blind. Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States are Braille readers. Further, a mere 10 percent of blind children are learning Braille. The inability to read Braille leaves most legally blind individuals functionally illiterate, which harms their chances of obtaining employment in adulthood.

Digital and Bluetooth Hearing Technology

With her first pair of digital hearing aids, she was able to reconnect with the Chinese-speaking side of her family. It was so important to her for me to buy them, that she offered me her entire piggy bank for which she had been saving for a Nintendo Pokemon video game. Twelve years later, she got her first pair of bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, which enabled her to understand a telephone conversation again. Her bluetooth-enabled FM system in college meant she could hear and understand her professors, even in a crowded auditorium with terrible acoustics. She will be starting a three-year PhD in audiology program next month (proud mom moment).

Never underestimate the impact of a good set of hearing devices to someone who has a substantial hearing loss and wants to hear.

Genetic Testing

In the not too distant future, it could be possible that prescriptions would always be individualized to the patient’s genetics. Before that can happen though, the laws pertaining to genetic data privacy need to be improved in the US. I am fortunate that I live in California, a state that has fairly strict laws about the privacy of data that results from genetic testing. Most of the other states don’t have the same level of protection. Any genetic condition uncovered by testing could be ascribed as a pre-existing condition. If pre-existing provisions get stripped from health insurance laws, doing genetic testing would give insurance companies the right to discriminate against people based on their results. Also, genetic testing has resulted in a decrease in the number of children born with disabilities through selective termination. From the perspective of someone with a disability, genetic testing is definitely a two-edged sword.

Prosthetics

Sheri Byrne-Haber in her new Whill wheelchair at the Montreal Airport
Sheri Byrne-Haber in her new Whill wheelchair at the Montreal Airport

Wheelchairs

Conclusion

As I have previously ranted about, the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities is at an all-time low — only 250% more than the rate of unemployment for people without disabilities. In the US, much of what I have listed above is out of the price range of many people with disabilities, especially if they are forced to stay out of the workplace to keep Medicaid insurance to cover their medical needs.

When an insurance company will only cover a $150 wheelchair, but you want the $4000 one, most people end up with the low-tech version. Many people with disabilities turn to GoFundMe to crowdsource funds for more advanced mobility aids. That is a sad place for our society to be, where people with disabilities have to tell a sad story and beg for funding for devices that everyone should automatically receive.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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