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Opinion | Technology can’t solve the problems ableism creates

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“Did you read that story in the Stanford Report about the affordable ‘smart cane’ that uses robotics? Wasn’t it cool?” Whenever articles about disability technology come out, I’m asked for my thoughts and feelings on the innovation at hand. People expect me — a blind person — to share their excitement. Most therefore find my frustration and lack of enthusiasm perplexing. They don’t understand that in the midst of the excitement that comes with applying technology to the disability community, the true harm — ableism — is often overlooked.

This “smart cane” is a good example of technology ignoring ableism. The developers intend to help the blind community. However, this product is not necessary for blind people to live and work successfully. In fact, this product can ultimately be harmful. Canes tell blind people what obstacles are in our walking paths and what terrains we’re walking on. The heavier weight of the “smart cane” puts undue stress on users’ wrists and arms. Canes like mine weigh significantly less than a single pound, whereas according to the article, this “smart cane” weighs a whopping three pounds. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome often result from muscle fatigue and repetitive motion. Using a cane that heavy every day could be catastrophic.

This article emphasizes the “affordability” of the “smart cane,” saying that similar products cost $6,000, and this one only costs $400. Perhaps they don’t realize that blind people can get canes for free here — it doesn’t get much more affordable than that. Almost 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2019; that’s the only income that a lot of us get. Many disabled Americans live at home or with caretakers, or they work for subminimum wages or in sheltered workshops. They don’t have $400 to spare, and I don’t find $400 easy to part with, either. I would rather save that money to help with post-graduation moving expenses, donate it to a philanthropic organization or save it for my hypothetical children’s college education.

People get caught up in the “smart” aspect of technology like the “smart cane”. My cane isn’t smart, but I don’t need it to be. The article and accompanying video talk about a wheel that pulls the user around obstacles, and while I certainly don’t like running into things, it’s nice to know that those things are there. I don’t want to be skating along sidewalks without knowing where those tables outside Old Union are, for example. Maybe I’m trying to meet a friend, or I’m using a traffic light as a landmark. The wheel on the tip of this cane might interfere with the textural elements of the terrain. People often ask me whether the sound of my cane’s metal tip dragging on the ground is grating to my ears, and while I do find it mildly annoying, there’s more to it than that. It’s nice knowing whether I’m walking on tile, bricks or carpet. A lot of other blind people would agree. Awareness is good — people shouldn’t take that away from us.

Even Stanford’s videos about the “smart cane” display the ableism and inaccessibility that pervade our society. The videos are not audio-described, so while the developers believe that they are engaging diversity and increasing accessibility, they are not doing so properly. It is extremely hypocritical to brag about accessibility efforts for blind people in videos that don’t contain audio description. 

Moreover, the “smart cane” assumes misguided notions of quality of life. The developers cite improvements in walking speed for both sighted and blind users while using this cane, and the video claims that “this can provide a significant improvement in terms of their quality of life due to improvement in mobility.” 

This kind of assumption is deeply troubling and offensive, because a person or group of people is projecting their image of “quality of life” onto the disabled. Falling into this pattern can be dangerous. This “smart cane” is perhaps less lethal than other examples of the same behavior. For example, even as recently as this year, people with disabilities have been denied life-saving healthcare when doctors projected their bigoted opinions about “quality of life” onto disabled patients. Both are examples of ableism. No one should assume that others have a lesser “quality of life” just because they live differently. The developers of the “smart cane” are likely trying to be helpful, but there are better ways to accomplish this aim using products that already exist.

Ableism and inaccessibility have always been huge societal issues. Developers think that they can solve those issues by creating something new, or that they can get around future issues through innovation. Technology isn’t always the solution, though. Here are some better ones.

In terms of “quality of life”, the disabled do not have equal access to aspects of society due to inaccessibility, and that’s much more damaging than inability to walk quickly or the existence of disabilities. Despite the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some buildings don’t have wheelchair-accessible rooms or correct Braille signage — even here at Stanford. 

This inaccessibility extends to the internet: there is no legislation specifically mandating web accessibility. There only exists a collection of unenforced guidelines. Making websites accessible could vastly improve “quality of life” for the disabled. We should concentrate less on innovating and more on establishing effective legislation and enforcing it.

Then, the bigger problem: ableism. It exists in every aspect of society, though others choose not to recognize it. Able-bodied people physically manipulate the disabled without asking us for consent. People drag the disabled across streets, or grab us to show us how to find things — the examples are endless. The disabled are sometimes forced to work in sheltered workshops and/or for subminimum wages. Workplaces that do pay above minimum wages still sometimes pay the disabled less than our non-disabled counterparts. Assistive technology isn’t affordable, and developers concentrate on high-tech solutions rather than making what already exists more affordable. There’s a high rate of sexual assault toward the disabled because we’re viewed as inferior, and we’re not taught what consent is. A lot of public transportation in America is not accessible, and ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are still refusing passengers with disabilities. These are just some of the endless examples of problems that urgently need solving. Let’s get off those high horses of high tech and instead spend our energy on fixing these issues.

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