Technology is changing the world. Mobile phones and internet access are available in even in the poorest countries in the world, and for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford the latest gadgets, the pace of technological change can be blistering. For some people, new technology can be profoundly life-changing.
On 1 March, there will be a special event in the European Parliament on the role of technology in improving accessibility and independent living for people with disabilities.
Over a billion people globally have some form of disability. That’s 15% of people alive today. 360 million people worldwide have moderate to profound hearing loss, 285 million people are visually impaired (39 million of whom are blind), 75 million people need a wheelchair (of which, only 5-15% actually have access to one).
Technology can lower barriers that people with disabilities encounter in their daily lives, such as speaking, travelling, reading, and writing. It can allow them to participate and enjoy the benefits of the digital society, with the same access to information as everyone else. And, perhaps most importantly, new technology can allow people with disabilities to act more independently from others if they wish (at the same time as connecting them with people around the world).
Want to learn more about how new technology might improve accessibility of people with disabilities? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):
We recently spoke to Nicolas Huchet, founder of My Human Kit, an organisation that helps bring together engineers, programmers, and other technically-skilled people with people with disabilities. Hutchet had a work accident in April 2002 and lost his hand, and in 2012 he discovered Open Source software and 3D printing. With the help of a local Fab Lab, he created a prototype of a low-cost 3D printed bionic hand.
How did he think his organisation, My Human Kit, could help improve accessibility for people with disabilities?
My project is about mixing high technology and low technology, and making it accessible for people… So, it’s run on the principle of a “Fab Lab” or fabrication laboratory; in other words, it’s an open digital fabrication workshop that anyone can go to. So, what we want to create is a human lab, a fabrication laboratory that mixes engineers, students, citizens, disabled people, and people who need something to fix themselves. And we want to create this space so people can work together and give sense to the projects they develop and use technology for the benefit of everyone.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Helga Stevens, a Belgian MEP with the New Flemish Alliance who was born deaf. As a policymaker and a person living with a disability, how did she think technology can help improve independent living?
What does she think she, and other policymakers, can do to facilitate the creation of new technology? Should she just get out of the way and let innovators do their thing? Or are there things that the policymakers can do to encourage and assist the spread of accessibility tech?
Finally, we asked Nicolas Huchet about how accessible he thought these new technologies would be. The aim of his 3D printed robotic hand is to deliver low-cost artifical limbs to people who otherwise couldn’t afford the technology. But it sounds like a complicated process to print and assemble such a limb. Will these new technologies only be available for the highly-skilled?
This is the goal of our association, which is called My Human Kit. We want to prove that you don’t have to be particularly skilled to be able to use a 3D printer.
I myself am not an engineer, and I don’t know how to code. But I have an expertise, which is my disability, because I’m missing my limb. This is my expertise, this is my skill.
So, it’s not just about technology, it’s about what we humans have or don’t have that makes us expert in something. And then there are the people who know the technology, and it’s by mixing these people that interesting things happen.
How will new technology improve accessibility for people with disabilities? Is there anything policymakers can do to facilitate innovation in this field? Will these new technologies only be available for the highly-skilled? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!