When two-year-old Iris Connolly of Essex, U.K. underwent treatment for a brain tumor, her father Sean Connolly scoped out ways to help her relearn basic writing skills. Although Iris was proficient at tracing designs on the iPad, Sean Connolly found nothing in the App Store that met his daughter’s needs. So he invented his own app. Today, special education programs around the world use Share My ABC’s, and Sean Connolly receives 25 percent of royalties from sales of the product.
At one point, Lisa Domican’s daughter Grace was unable to speak due to autism. According to her mother, Grace would become so frustrated that “she [was] capable of a two-to-three-hour tantrum that would leave your ears ringing.” Weary of one-size-fits-all therapies, Domican, who lives in County Wicklow near Ireland, partnered with a Silicon Valley developer to create the Grace App for Autism. Today, the app serves as the centerpiece of autism therapy platforms that reinforce learned behavior: helping children get what they want by prompting appropriate ways of asking for it.
These are among the stories found in my book Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind, published last month by Morgan Kaufmann. In addition to recounting case studies where digital innovation is driven by the disability sector, the book explores the ways in which technology alienates 54 million Americans who currently live with a disability.
In writing Digital Outcasts, I spent most of the first section researching attitudes related to people with disabilities: who the “outcasts” are, how they interact with technology for basic life functions and the ways in which today’s legal and e-commerce landscapes have fallen short in supporting their needs. Recent lawsuits involving Target and Netflix, respectively, serve as examples for how people with vision and hearing impairments have been affected by inaccessible online services.
However, I didn’t intend the book to be all lectures and statistics. Among the book’s discoveries are the real world scenarios in which innovation and accessibility merge. One chapter investigates how video games may benefit people undergoing long-term rehabilitation for an injury, while another describes how virtual reality can be used for people with long-term injuries or degenerative illnesses.
The stories that people shared with me were touching, amusing and insightful: a teenage music prodigy with a traumatic brain injury, a successful stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy, an employment agency that specializes in finding jobs for workers with autism. By writing this book, I’ve hoped to connect these anecdotes to the premise that inclusive design can serve as a vehicle for innovation. Think of it as the technology of tomorrow built with today’s accessibility in mind.
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