Disabled Do-It-Yourselfers Lead Way to Technology Gains

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At the New York Public Library’s Dimensions lab, Chancey Fleet, who is Blind, is working with a team to make spatial learning easier for blind people and to provide access to information — part of the library’s core mission — to those who can best get it through touch. Visitors to the lab in the Heiskell branch of the library in Manhattan are invited to make 3-D printed objects and tactile graphics, or graphics embedded with Braille and other textural elements to make their meaning legible by touch. Ms. Fleet is hoping to end what she calls “image poverty.”

She says as a Blind child, “I thought I was someone who didn’t have any aptitude at all in STEM, even though I did well academically.” But she later realized her problem was not with science and technology per se. ”Looking back, it seems as though I was a spatial learner,” she said. “If the images are there, it turns out that the aptitudes are there.”

Experts in disability and technology, like Ashley Shew, associate professor at Virginia Tech in the Department of Science, Technology and Society, says that the best of these projects emerge out of the DIY-culture so prominent within disabled communities. Too often, the biggest and most promising innovations may come with hidden barriers, like cost, maintenance and the need to customize them.

“We’ve been misled,” said Ms. Shew, who identifies as multiply disabled and uses hearing aids and prosthetics. “The public perception is very celebratory about new developments,” but this “completely looks over issues of maintenance and wear. People think you’re given this item once and then it’s fixed for all eternity.”

Not only are devices like prosthetics and hearing aids often not covered by insurance, but expert care is hard to find. Ms. Shew, for example, travels four hours for leg prosthetic care. Meanwhile, too much technology is designed around a perception of what’s normal. For example, arm prosthetics are often designed with five fingers, a hand, but Ms. Shew says, “A lot of arm amputees don’t necessarily want” that but instead would like a bike-riding arm or a chopping arm.

Maintenance isn’t the only ongoing issue for users of disability-specific technology; intellectual property law can restrict the ability of users to customize their devices to suit their changing needs. Ian Smith, a software engineer who is Deaf, has dwarfism and uses a power wheelchair, points out that too often disabled people are not permitted to tinker with devices because of trademark issues, negating what many call the right to repair. “You’re at the mercy of the manufacturer for upgrades and repairs,” he said.

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