My wife recently sent me a link to this provocatively appealing Indiegogo crowdfunding project, named Titan Note. According to its developers, Titan Note listens to what is being said in a lecture or meeting, and take notes for you. Besides the obvious benefits to anyone of not missing out on lectures and speeches, a deaf student or attendee would instinctively see the benefits of this product (disclosure: I’m deaf). Reliant on transcription, captioning, or sign or oral interpreting services, the deaf person would view Titan Note as a convenient, cost-effective replacement that could be taken wherever the person goes.
Over the past two decades, we in the deaf community have seen many promises of perfect voice recognition fall by the wayside, so we are naturally skeptical of such claims. I for one am not sold yet on Titan Note, and will wait to hear if this catches on. Still, Titan Note and other similar innovations highlight the role of different strands of technology in opening up functional access usually taken for granted by people WITHOUT disabilities. Innovation, per se, is a way to solve persistent issues with current products encountered by a significant number of consumers. In many cases, innovation does not always take into account the needs of people with disabilities, even if the benefits to these types of people are obvious.
Any new product that breaks the mold in any product category — in other words (loosely), an innovative product — has the potential to excite and inspire a market that has little use for current or new non-innovative products. When marketed right, the benefits of innovative products are obvious and appealing to those with a specific need for them. For people with disabilities, these marketing campaigns tend not to mention or focus on any aspect of disability, at least initially. Even if that product addresses a specific need or want generated by the disability itself.
Take the Kindle, for instance: its text-to-speech feature in early-generation Kindles democratized the reading market for those with blindness and other vision issues, by incorporating digital transmission with audio in a format that avoided the friction of purchasing separate audiobooks. Although it was missing the human voice, the availability of text-to-speech opened up options for a large section of the disability market. However, after the fourth-generation Kindle, text-to-speech features were eliminated from newer Kindles, taking away the benefit to blind and visually-challenged readers. It was only with the 2016 rollout of the new Kindle e-reader that blind readers were able to utilize text-to-speech, albeit not so easily. (Link: Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2016)
Gerard Goggin, professor of media and communications at the University of Sydney, wrote in his 2008 article, “Innovation & Disability”, that developing innovative technologies — whether intentionally for people with disabilities, or intentionally for the broader market — usually do not always include people with disabilities in design discussions.
Innovation, in and of itself, can help drive the economy by jumpstarting a company’s revenues and profits, or bringing in new jobs through growing startups, usually by entering new markets. To the extent that a new idea for a product could benefit people with and without disabilities, it makes good sense to include people with disabilities in all stages of the product development process for innovative products. Because, this way, chances are better that these products will function better for people with and without disabilities. And ultimately help drive innovation overall.