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Inclusive Design: Assistive Technology for the Disabled

If assistive technologies weren’t meant for normal people, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. There would be no keyboards to type with, or phones that magically understand and process what one said. A focus on inclusive design for ‘disabled’ people made these technologies possible.

However, inclusive design is thought of as a healthcare problem. Most product designers are trained to think about the majority of users and designing for the average. With tech’s ability to bridge the gap between and individual and their environment, there is a strong case for flipping this approach on its head.

Universal or inclusive design is a relatively new approach that examines, among others, the possibilities of opening a door without hands, or operating a gaming console using only a thumb. By keeping such extreme use cases in mind, products can even benefit those without disabilities.

What the Future Holds

For instance, a device to help people with low vision could help firefighters see better in a smoke-filled environment. Another great example of this is the research into brain-machine interfaces for people suffering from paralysis. If developed fully, we would be able to control our devices by just thinking about them.

Designing for disabilities is easier spoken about than implemented. In the fast-moving world of tech, companies often want to be the first to market. The assistive technology market is worth only fractions of the overall demand for technology, making it easy to cut out extra features that add on costs. As the inclusive approach catches on, that cost should become part of the initial product itself.

Another aspect of this is having large focus groups. Companies need to think of ways to include people with special needs when testing a product. Partnering with universities or military hospitals to reach out to potential participants could help address that issue. We could see a greater number of organisations designing products with student-run labs. Besides knowing their peers’ needs best, the students would help drive down the cost of implementing new features. A good start would be for companies to use their in-house training institutes to inculcate the principles of design for everyone.

According to the World Health Organisation, disability is the “interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” Technology may not be able to change someone’s body, but through inclusive design, it can – and should – focus on its basic purpose: making the surrounding environment easier to navigate.