On February 22, 2019, Sheila Durant, Gary Norman and Debra A. Vey Voda-Hamilton organized and presented Transatlantic Reflections on the Power of Technology for Inclusion. The event was graciously hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States at their building in Washington, DC. The event included presentations and discussions from people heavily involved in either technology or disability rights. The speakers were Alejandro Moledo, Lainey Feingold, Steven Livingston, Edie Fraser, and Jay Steinmetz.
Alejandro Moledo was the first panelist of the event and represented the European Disability Forum (EDF) as a policy coordinator. Mr. Moledo spoke at length about how technology has not only been used to the benefit of people with disabilities but has also allowed them to better assert their civil rights. Even though Mr. Moledo spoke of the positive aspects of technology for people with disabilities, he made sure to emphasize that there is still much work left to do. Moledo stated that for people with disabilities to be able to fully assert their civil rights with technology there needed to be a full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, advocacy at the local level, and greater inclusion and insight of people with disabilities in all sectors, especially in creating new innovative technology. Mr. Moledo then finished with an emphasis on data protection and privacy concerns when using any technology and that people with disabilities are no different in wanting to make their own decisions about data and privacy.
Lainey Feingold, a disability civil rights lawyer from California, followed by her experience of people with disabilities and technology. She introduced stories from her legal experience that showcased the pros and cons of technology for people with disabilities. One example was how when ATMs were first introduced they lacked any accessibility options. This prevented people with vision impairments from accessing their money and forced them to go through the traditional bank teller system for all bank transactions. She detailed how she helped clients approach banks, like Bank of America, to add accessibility options to their ATMs, which they fortunately did. She also emphasized the importance of having technology having people with disabilities in mind when creating new technology. Besides the example of ATMs, Ms. Feingold presented the examples of a couple with disabilities at Wal-Mart trying to use the self-checkout machines being taken advantage by a Wal-Mart employee. Additionally, she also presented concerns of accessibility in healthcare, such as some people with disabilities not able to read their prescription labels or access the data gained from new technology such as “ingest-ibles”.
Steven Livingston, a professor at George Washington University, discussed issues of accessibility for people with disabilities in major cities, including in “progressive” cities like Berlin. Mr. Livingston discussed the importance of technology in general and how it can let people improve their quality of life in some form. He used the example of his work in Mathare, Kenya. Mr. Livingston discussed how students and members of the community in Mathare use technology, especially their cell phones, to help them address systematic problems in their community where the Kenyan government has failed them, such as addressing sewage problems, trash collections, and access to forms of healthcare. Livingston’s examples emphasize the power of technology, but also the need to collaborate with other groups of people, such as people with disabilities so that the new technology does not inadvertently isolate them.
Edie Fraser, the managing editor of Diversified Search as well as the founder of STEMconnector and Million Women Mentors, Ms. Fraser presented information that 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability and that people with disabilities is the world’s largest minority group. According to her presentation, roughly around 650 million people around the world live with a disability. Ms. Fraser emphasized that there needs to be research, analysis, and support for people with disabilities, similarly as to work conducted on behalf of other minority groups. She also included statistical information about minority women and used the information to emphasize that similar research on people with disabilities is lacking.
Jay Steinmetz, CEO of Barcoding Inc., briefly went over what his company does and the potential of the technology his company utilizes. One particular piece of technology that Mr. Steinmetz presented was that of “Bluetooth Low Energy” devices. These devices could potentially tell someone with a disability where they are, what is in the room, and other such information. He continued that such technology is expected to become even cheaper and more accessible because of innovations in making the “Bluetooth Low Energy” devices run without batteries, which increases costs. Mr. Steinmetz continued to explain the potential benefits and convenience of various new and upcoming concepts and devices for people with disabilities. One such example was that of “projected energy” which could make items like kitchen appliances “cord-free”. By having the appliance be “cord-free” it could help people with disabilities who may have difficulty moving items or having difficulty plugging or unplugging the devices.
Each panelist provided a great amount of information about their particular subject. A common refrain was the need for greater inclusion and insight on technology from people with disabilities. It is impossible to use technology to its full potential for people with disabilities if the very people it is intended to help are not part of the creation process. The panelist provided a great discussion which has left our briefers thinking substantially about the relationship between technology and disabilities.
The Brief staff would like to thank Sheila Durant, Gary Norman, and Debra A. Vey Voda-Hamilton for inviting the WCL Science and Technology Law Brief to attend the discussion. We would also like to thank the German Marshall Fund of the United States for hosting the event. It was a great event filled with valuable information that has engaged our briefers for weeks.