The technology sector could make or break disability inclusion

By Catherine Cheney 09 January 2017

Advocates for disability rights want to see a greater commitment to disability inclusion in product development as well as global development. Photo by: Exchanges Photos / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the criticisms of the technology industry is that, by focusing on products and platforms, it has forgotten about people. Advocates for disability rights are adding that they want to see a greater commitment to disability inclusion in product development as well as global development.

Last month, a group of civil society organizations published a call to action on Devex arguing that donor agencies and implementing organizations are failing to fulfill their commitments to inclusion of people with disabilities. Delivering on this promise would have a big impact, particularly given that the roughly 15 percent of the global population who live with disabilities are also disproportionately living in poverty.

As Silicon Valley continues to emerge as a key partner to the global development community, the technology sector could make or break the future of disability inclusion and strike a blow against the unequal treatment of people with disabilities, experts told Devex.

“Inequality creates poverty,” Haben Girma, a disability rights leader, who is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School among other accomplishments, told Devex via email. “Barriers make it hard for people with disabilities to secure employment or get an education, which leads to poverty. Fully addressing poverty requires us to remove the barriers created by disability based discrimination.”

Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, talks with Devex about inclusive development.

From the private sector to the global development industry to the growing partnerships between both sides, inclusion is always better than exclusion, said Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

“We need to ask ourselves over and over again: Are we cutting corners when it comes to including those who have been treated with the most disdain by the culture, by the politics, by the social structures, in all of our countries?” he told Devex.

While all programs should be inclusive rather than exclusive, there is also a need for dedicated effort, careful attention, and specialized funding to ensure that health and education and training programs include people with disabilities, he continued.

Other experts agree. When we talk about global development, and the poorest of the poor, we need to include people with disabilities, said Betsy Beaumon, president of Benetech, an organization focused on technology for social benefit.

“Disability and poverty are just way too closely aligned,” she told Devex in an interview at her office in Palo Alto, California. “My call to action for the global development community is inclusion. Include people with disabilities explicitly.”

In April, Benetech was one of 29 organizations selected by Google.org for funding from its $20 million Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities. With this funding, Benetech is expanding its work on Bookshare, an accessible online library. Charity represents just one way that Google is working to democratize technology access.

Facebook hired its first blind engineer in 2015. Matt King was tasked with developing the tech company’s alternative text initiative, which leverages artificial intelligence technology to describe photos for Facebook users who are visually impaired. But he is also one of the leaders shaping the culture of several Silicon Valley companies to pursue accessible development from the outset when it comes to product development.

Why software companies do or do not make products or services available to people with disabilities is a complicated question and has a nuanced answer, said Keith Hiatt, vice president of human rights at Benetech, whose dissertation research focused on this topic. He mentioned how advances in accessibility technology have driven profits, such as how the text to speech and speech to text capability, which was developed for people with disabilities, has evolved into technology used in Google Maps or Siri on iPhone.

“It gives tech companies an ulterior motive to do the right thing, which is often the way things really happen, when they have a reason to do the right thing that could be profitable for them down the road,” he said.

When companies do not develop something as accessible from the outset, they are setting up hurdles for themselves to make changes in version two that were not included in version one, Beaumon told Devex.

Betsy Beaumon, president of Bentech, talks with Devex about her mission to leverage technology in order to develop solutions for people with unmet needs.

At the same time, there is a tension between accessibility and the Minimum Viable Product, because of a belief that accessibility is not “M enough” to be part of the MVP, Hiatt said.

“We see a tendency to believe that accessibility is an innovation inhibitor, and this is the opposite of the truth,” he told Devex. “We see a lot of, ‘Hey, I’m a startup, I’m going to go small and lean and agile, rapid prototype and iterate, and add on accessibility later when we can afford it.”

Two technology companies Girma highlighted for their work in inclusion are Apple and SAP. Apple has a commitment to ensure all their products are accessible to people with disabilities, from its watches to its computers, she said. SAP, a software company with offices all over the world, has an initiative to increase hiring of people with disabilities because it believes that a diverse and inclusive culture drives innovation, she added.

Some technology companies have said they see people with disabilities “as a market” whereas other say they design products that can be used by anyone and everyone simply because it is the right thing to do.

While Hiatt said he welcomes the engagement of Silicon Valley in sustainable global development, he explained that ending poverty does not necessarily translate to ending inequality, and that market forces are not likely to drive disability inclusion.

“If we don’t understand what equality means, if we leave it out or if we think it’s a byproduct of eliminating poverty, we’ll miss it, and we won’t even know that we’ve missed it because our metrics will be all wrong,” he said.  

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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