The world of accessible technology is reaching a tipping point. And that’s a good thing. For a long time, accessible and assistive devices — many designed for people living with life-altering disabilities — were unwieldy, specialized things that were attainable by only a select few. They were inaccessible, in other words.
That now seems to be changing. Near-ubiquitous technologies such as smartphones and personal computers are around every corner (or inside every pocket), and rather than being predefined objects with fixed and unalterable features, they rest on evolving and personalized software platforms with almost limitless potential. For many with vision loss, for instance, smartphones function as versatile devices that read text, magnify objects, provide light, respond to voice commands, give directions, juggle schedules, and more. Taken together, the value of these services is immeasurable.
Smartphones and similar devices have had an incredible democratizing effect over the last two decades. In the world of accessibility, at least as far as personal computing is concerned, high tech is no longer fringe for the majority of Canadians with smartphones (over 80 percent of North Americans own them). The globalization theorist Arjun Appadurai has noted that an increased flow of available technologies within a globalized market has led to a kind of technoscape, a wide-ranging and transformative environment of technological access and advancement that erodes boundaries between global and local, image and reality, city and country, and — though he doesn’t use the terms — one could certainly say abled and disabled.
The mass availability of personalized, accessible, and assistive technologies is a crucial step toward the creation of an accessible technoscape. Combined with more specialized devices — such as Bell Canada’s accessible smartphone lineup, which features a variety of built-in features and functionalities for those with vision loss alongside more affordable plans for those with accessibility needs — the dream of a truly accessible society appears to be coming into focus.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that the dream is already here. Personalized, software-focused devices are a shining beacon in accessibility, but their design philosophy needs to be implemented within other social and political domains. As far as architecture and cities are concerned, advancements have been made with tactile walking surfaces, pedestrian signals, and other innovations, but these should now be standardized in building codes and other legal, administrative, and policy frameworks. And like many modern smartphones and computers, new projects should be designed from the ground up with accessibility in mind. We should be doing the same with transportation, workspaces, educational facilities, public resources, and other areas of social infrastructure.
The smartphone gives us a glimpse of Canada’s accessible technoscape. If policymakers work ethically and effectively with industry and other stakeholders, and if those with vision loss are consulted as experts in their fields, we can turn that vision into a truly accessible reality.
Equity and Affordability Are Key
Accessibility only works when it’s widespread. The science fiction author William Gibson casually observed that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Though he wasn’t addressing accessible devices specifically, the fact remains that there are too many Canadians with vision loss and other disabilities who are unable to benefit from what accessible technology has to offer, usually due to enormous buy-in costs.
Moving forward, new partnerships and programs that bring the advantages of accessible and assistive technologies to as many Canadians as possible should be a collective focus. Ideally, this will take the form of Canadian government funding or supplementing the cost of smartphones and related devices for those with accessibility needs. And employers who prioritize welcoming, accessible workplaces should be rewarded for paving the way for a more humane, ethical, and inclusive labour market.