The Assistive Technology Innovation Rut

Working in the field of #assistivetechnology, it often feels like we can get stuck in an #innovationrut. For example, #wheelchair design generally looks the same as it did years ago — sure there are a few different angles, and different materials to improve weight and ease of rolling, but have we really made meaningful change in the experience of wheelchair users? Have we reconsidered what it means to move around one’s environment without walking in a way that actually belies our #creativity? Have we actually talked to wheelchair users to see what they would design, given the chance? What is actually meaningful to them?

Innovations in assistive technology also suffer from developing ‘niche’ products, which serve a relatively small component of the population. The World Health Organization says 1 billion people in the world need at least one form of assistive technology — but that group is broken into hundreds of types of technology, all which meet specific needs, and often need to be customized to suit the person using it. Assistive technology doesn’t have the benefit of widespread market appeal — and innovations in #AT may not benefit from the same neo-liberal wisdom we might apply to something like a mobile phone.

I’d like to suggest we have opportunities to address these challenges:

  1. We can learn from the barriers to innovation faced in similar industries, and the strategies they have used to overcome them. This is particularly true if we focus on industries that may experience similar (i.e. fewer) push and pull market forces.
  2. We can help other industries to reconceptualize how they might design and deliver their technologies and services to benefit people with disabilities through more #inclusivedesign, or by understanding people with disabilities as a key demographic to be served by their technology. In essence, ensure people with disabilities are not ‘apart’ from the mainstream, but rather understood to be very much a part of it.

Addressing the innovation rut in assistive technology is critical not only for the experience of people with disabilities, but ensuring we live in a more inclusive society. It is an acknowledgement that we all have a right to participation through work, play, and family life.

Innovations in assistive technology also suffer from developing ‘niche’ products, which serve a relatively small component of the population. The World Health Organization says 1 billion people in the world need at least one form of assistive technology — but that group is broken into hundreds of types of technology, all which meet specific needs, and often need to be customized to suit the person using it. Assistive technology doesn’t have the benefit of widespread market appeal — and innovations in #AT may not benefit from the same neo-liberal wisdom we might apply to something like a mobile phone.

I’d like to suggest we have opportunities to address these challenges:

  1. We can learn from the barriers to innovation faced in similar industries, and the strategies they have used to overcome them. This is particularly true if we focus on industries that may experience similar (i.e. fewer) push and pull market forces.
  2. We can help other industries to reconceptualize how they might design and deliver their technologies and services to benefit people with disabilities through more #inclusivedesign, or by understanding people with disabilities as a key demographic to be served by their technology. In essence, ensure people with disabilities are not ‘apart’ from the mainstream, but rather understood to be very much a part of it.

Addressing the innovation rut in assistive technology is critical not only for the experience of people with disabilities, but ensuring we live in a more inclusive society. It is an acknowledgement that we all have a right to participation through work, play, and family life.

Leave a Comment