Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

on assistive technology

I was talking with some friends on Twitter the other day about the ever-shortening definition of what gets counted as a “long read” — it's enough to make me more sympathetic to those shrinking-attention-span arguments that I tend otherwise to be skeptical towards. Medium tells me, in its highly annoying way, that this essay by Sara Hendren should take me fifteen minutes to read, which I guess makes it a long read by many current definitions.

But whether you call it that or not, the key thing is this: I could read this essay in less than fifteen minutes, but it leaves me with a great deal to think about that will occupy me for considerably longer. (I won't hold my breath for Medium to estimate how long I'll be thinking about what I read there.)

Hendren's interests, here and on her website, Abler, revolve around the various forms of disability, the languages we use for disability, and the objects (with their overt or covert artfulness) we design to aid disabled people — the kind of objects that are generally lumped under the category “assistive technology.” But it's just that term that Hendren wants to call into question:

Well—it’s worth saying again: All technology is assistive technology. Honestly—what technology are you using that’s not assistive? Your smartphone? Your eyeglasses? Headphones? And those three examples alone are assisting you in multiple registers: They’re enabling or augmenting a sensory experience, say, or providing navigational information. But they’re also allowing you to decide whether to be available for approach in public, or not; to check out or in on a conversation or meeting in a bunch of subtle ways; to identify, by your choice of brand or look, with one culture group and not another.

Making a persistent, overt distinction about “assistive tech” embodies the second-tier do-gooderism and banality that still dominate design work targeted toward “special needs.” “Assistive technology” implies a separate species of tools designed exclusively for those people with a rather narrow set of diagnostic “impairments”—impairments, in other words, that have been culturally designated as needing special attention, as being particularly, grossly abnormal. But are you sure your phone isn’t a crutch, as it were, for a whole lot of unexamined needs? If the metrics were expansive enough, I think the impact of what’s designated as assistive would start to get blurry pretty quickly.

Please read the whole thing. And then think about it for however long it takes. There are a great many implications here, some of which I hope to take up in a later post.

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