Recently one of my colleagues, for the purposes of this blog let’s call her Helen, is nearing two notable landmarks in her life. One is her fortieth birthday and the second is her final ophthalmic consultation to register her as blind. For most of her life, Helen has been visually impaired, but she then became classed as severely impaired and more recently her sight is so degraded that she now needs to be registered as blind. For most of her career, Helen has been a teacher, she teaches vision-impaired students and she works with a local blind and visually impaired charity. Helen has a hectic lifestyle and a self-confessed ‘Techie-Geek’ and so she isn’t opposed to using technology when and where she needs it. Through her role, she is also trained on how to teach other visually impaired people how to interact with technology to support their everyday needs.
To move her closer to prepare for the final ophthalmic meeting she recently had a visit from an Occupational Therapist (OT). The OT’s job is to work through what adaptions would be required in Helen’s house as well as her life. After her OT appointment, Helen confessed that she had a moment of stark clarity, a moment when she felt she had to stop and reflect on an issue. This issue was how she would now perceive herself as a ‘disabled individual. Helen had been so desperately keen to fully live her life, she had never actually considered herself as disabled or to need specific sight impaired assistive technology (AT). However, when her OT began listing AT which she would have to use this made her stop and reflect on how this would alter her persona within the outside world, would it signal her purely as blind and nothing more? Later, over coffee, Helen and I chatted. Helen confessed that the OT had offered her several AT devices that she could easily use to assist her in her many journeys up and down the country and abroad. However, it was the suggestion of a single AT devices e.g. a digital cane, that had brought Helen into her stark reflection. I tried to convince Helen that this wouldn’t be a problem to her and she already had the experience of working with similar AT devices within her job. To this Helen retorted, “yes…but Lisa, I still want to be ordinary.”
Reading around the subject of a user wishing to remain ‘ordinary’ revealed that Helen was not alone in her need to maintain the status of ‘ordinary’. Söderström and Ytterhus state “Even though both ICT and assistive technologies (AT) are perceived as identity markers, their symbolic values are inherently contradictory”. They go on to describe how AT is inherently medically linked and as such shows a user to have a form of dependence. If the user is a young person conscious about their self-identity, then AT allocation becomes a sensitive issue. For younger people AT can be viewed as a stigma, communicating their restriction or vulnerabilities, rather than their abilities.
Looking at ‘user’ through a wider inclusive lens, for example, to include user perceptions and sensitivities, is enlightening to designer’s creative processes. However, it is also a challenging process. Users differ in their reactions to using AT, some may consider AT as flagging their ability needs and others may feel it flags their disability needs. However, from practice-led experience, I would add that designers who completely ignore the user’s input on their wider sensitivities and social perceptions at the point of design do so at their peril. AT abandonment is a growing issue, and some of the reasons, asserted by RNIB for example, are users wider perceptions were never considered prior to design or procurement of AT. Phillips, B. and H. Zhao assert that there are four factors which significantly relate to abandonment—lack of consideration of user opinion in the selection process, or AT device procurement, poor device performance, and change in user needs or priorities. Looking at Phillips et al’s  study it appears that user-led selection can sometimes be devalued over cost. This means that many users are being assessed and being allocated AT equipment which in short periods of time are destined to increase the AT abandonment statistics.
In respect to Helen’s need to use AT, and remain ‘ordinary’, it is important to note it is not all ‘doom and gloom’. In more recent years the ‘mainstream’ design industry appears to be answering some deeper user-led issues, whilst still maintaining a sense of designing mainstream or ‘ordinary’ products. Currently, mainstream companies are readily connecting to more of a universal design ethos. Designers are now becoming more aware of user differences and user access and therefore diminishing the label of ‘disability products’. Mobile phones designers, (Nokia, Samsung, and Apple to name a few), include sensory and motor skills additions but contained within a mainstream product. Mobile phone screens are larger, the text can be scaled up, contrast can be scaled down, users can opt for audio transcription apps, blind users can have Braille buttons, and mobiles often offer easy to grip casings. Kitchenware and utility designers are looking at universal design protocols too, many mainstream commercial companies Marks and Spencer, Tesco, B&Q, and Nampak are still somewhere behind the universal design best-practice shown by OXO, and Helen Hamlyn products. But there is a wider scope of products which are considered to be ‘design-for-all’ and to allow users to be extra-ordinary whilst appearing ordinary.
- Söderström, S. and B. Ytterhus, The use and non‐use of assistive technologies from the world of information and communication technology by visually impaired young people: a walk on the tightrope of peer inclusion. Disability & Society, 2010. 25(3): p. 303-315.
- Phillips, B. and H. Zhao, Predictors of Assistive Technology Abandonment. Assistive Technology, 1993. 5: p. 36-44.
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