The Three Musketeers said it first when they announced “All for one, and one for all!” and welcomed rookie D’Artagnan into their ranks. The world has come a long way, as we now recognize that everybody has the right to be included in any public platform or place.
Age old institutions across the world are taking their time to get ‘on message’, but they are trying. Newer institutions, not bogged down with the weight of history and tradition, should have an easier ride of it. But this has not always been the case.
The tech world, for all its shiny wonder, has still had some trouble throwing off the shackles of discrimination and bigotry thanks to its independence with those aforementioned olde-worlde institutions.
It has taken the clamour of many continuous voices to effect serious change, as well as the creative pluck of pioneering individuals.
Sticks and stones may break bones, and so will words, it turns out. Especially when the continuous and offensive use of some terms in the course of both everyday communication and industry-specific language goes unchecked.
Up until a year ago, offensive words and terms with negative connotations like “master/slave” and “whitelist/blacklist” were still being used in lines of code in the software industry, simply because they always had; people were so used to seeing these terms, thought of questioning them didn’t even arise. Once pointed out – in this instance by Intel and Linux supremo Dan Williams – the terms stand out like sore thumbs. But after that first step has been made, others will stand up and re-examine dormant terminology which has been slumbering for decades.
In their rundown of how the tech industry has been making good (and not so good) on their promises to the accessibility community, Engadget examined some of tech’s biggest players and their efforts to reacclimatize to a more inclusive ethos.
From Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab, launched in 2022, which aims to involve the differently abled community in design and ideation, to Google’s plans for building “out-of-the-box” support for braille displays into Android’s Talkback screen reader, the tech giants have been allocating both human and financial resources to realize their dreams of a better world for all. Meta (the new banner under which Facebook and Instagram operate) was named the best place to work for disability inclusion by the Disability Equality Index, for the fifth time in a row.
In a backwards step, though, Elon Musk axed Twitter’s accessibility team when he took ownership of the social media platform. This has been a sadly ironic move for the disability and accessibility community. As Engadget commented:
“Because of its reach, Twitter helped boost the voices of members of the disability community, helping spread awareness and education to the mainstream audience. With the elimination of [the accessibility team] improvements to make the platform more inclusive and accessible have come to a halt, and there may be no one around to address issues that break the service for people with disabilities.”
Isaac Asimov was pretty clear when he laid out the rules for robots. Over the last decade or so, the interpretation of those rules has become increasingly nuanced. Robots should not hurt human beings – but they can replace them in the workplace, take away their income and render their life meaningless (looking at a worst-case scenario).
Over in Japan, robots are back on the straight and narrow by helping human beings back into work. At the DAWN robot café, in Tokyo, customers can choose from a wide range of coffees as well as a diverse food menu. DAWN stands for Diverse Avatar Working Network. What does it all mean and who does it help? The café is staffed by robots, or OriHime humanoids, on the café floor, and human pilots for those OriHime robots who live with disabilities, are able to operate the Tele-baristas from their own homes, using a mouse, iPad or gaze-controlled remote.
The co-founder of the tech start-up behind the café, Kentaro Yohsifuji himself suffered a number of debilitating health issues as a child which inspired him to study robotics and “use technology to ease the life of people who were not able to participate in the normal social sphere, be it work or socialising.”
To support this idea of socializing, home workers can interact with customers via the iPads which the OriHime robots carry, and personally guide the customer through the coffee menu for example. Some of the latest OriHime-D models even have features which can be changed to reflect the personality of the remote work who is operating them.
Some tech companies, wanting to go even further in improving life for people with disabilities, have also been involved in redesigning everyday items.
Working with designers across many industry fields including fashion, software, and furniture design, companies have helped develop and manufacture cutlery with different handle angles and thicknesses to suit varying levels of hand strength, dexterity and control, a PlayStation controller which can lie flat on a table or wheelchair tray of gamers with limited motor control, and soft silicone headphones which use water to carry sound vibrations through the skull for listeners who are deal of hard of hearing.
Nothing is, or should be “one size fits all” anymore. As a society, we now have the insight, emotional intelligence, education and technology to enable changes across all industries, not just the tech industry, to adapt, create and re-create every element within workplaces and leisure spaces, rendering the world more accessible for all its human inhabitants.
The problem is, as it always has been, when conservative institutions sway the argument over common sense and forward thinking, to keep progress on the back foot. After all, it’s not really robots and technology that take our jobs and render those less able without opportunity – it’s the people with money.