When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the future. Bred on movies and television shows that depicted a futuristic wonderland, I couldn’t wait to see if our world would actually catch up with our imaginations.
Years later, I am thrilled to say that (minus the hover boards) the “future” is even more advanced than I could have imagined. Nearly every person I encounter walks around with a smart phone that is considerably more powerful and versatile than my high school’s entire computer lab. We are developing driverless cars, controlling complex home security systems via our smart phones and smart watches, and creating anything our hearts desire with 3D printers. Even our “toys” are incredible: drones and virtual reality headsets for everyone!
But most importantly, we are continually innovating to make the world more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
I am in love with a brilliantly designed electric car that enables drivers with mobility issues to hit the road. It opens fully from the back and allows the user to roll right into the driver’s position and remain in his wheelchair while driving. Though it can only reach 25 miles per hour, it still provides the user with a reliable mode of transportation for errands around the neighborhood.
But that’s only the beginning.
Interactive computer systems allow those with disabilities to navigate and control computers with only their eyes, just as an everyday computer user would employ a mouse. Because the gaze interaction only requires the movement of the eye itself, it is the perfect solution for those with motor disabilities. (We’ve had great success utilizing this technology at ALEH, Israel’s largest network for facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.)
There is also a refreshable display that reads content on a computer screen and converts it into Braille characters on an attachable “keyboard” so that individuals who are visually impaired can interact with their computers like any other user. Similarly, a specialized smart phone with a screen comprised of a grid of pins forms shapes and Braille characters when the user receives a message.
Another new technology speeds up the process of creating customized prosthetics for children. During the process, a computerized image is sent to a complex 3D printer that creates a model of the mold used to make the prosthetic. The prosthetic is then fitted around the mold, and all the computerized settings are saved, so as children grow it’s quicker and easier to make them new limbs.
And then there’s the wearable technology.
A discreet wearable for individuals who are visually impaired or partially sighted uses ultrasound to detect obstacles that lie along the user’s path. Intuitive vibrations notify the user of these obstacles and allow him to safely navigate around the obstructions.
There is even a wearable to motivate autistic children to interact socially and a smart spoon that assists people with tremors to eat more easily.
And the list goes on and on. There is no limit to our technological innovation when it comes to empowering the disabled population and making our world more accessible to all.
We do, however, continue to falter in one area of societal innovation: inclusion.
Why am referring to inclusion as an “innovation”? Because the word denotes action and transformation, and at present we don’t seem to be charging forward as we should to alter our society in the ways necessary to accommodate all individuals. It is also an allusion to the fact that true equality and accessibility for individuals with special needs would sadly still be considered revolutionary today.
So, we are faced with some pretty perplexing questions.
Why is it that we can invest so much in developing technologies that will empower our brothers and sister with disabilities and help them navigate the world, yet we can’t seem to stimulate the systemic change necessary to topple our entrenched culture of exclusion?
Why have we been so successful at hacking nature and harnessing the sciences to benefit those with special needs, but we can’t seem to appropriately recalibrate our own hearts and minds to accept true integration?
As astounding and revolutionary as they may be, the technological advancements we have made on behalf of the special needs community pale in comparison to the innovation of true inclusion and acceptance. It would be a beautiful thing to behold, and the only barrier in our way…is us.
As Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (#JDAIM16) draws to a close, take a moment to consider how easy it would be to become an agent of change. No doctorate or special training is required, and yet you could become a powerful innovator of inclusion, a societal trailblazer the likes of which the world has never seen before.
Just think about the possibilities. Now, that’s a future worth obsessing over.