Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The True Value of Assistive Technologies

The value of assistive technologies to individuals with disabilities is immeasurable. Who can be a learner? Who can be a worker? Who can be a gamer? Who can participate in our increasingly technology-driven culture? Anyone. Seriously, anyone. A blind, nonverbal child who is also a quadriplegic spells her name on a computer through a simple head movement. A programmer with ALS continues to work full-time typing with his eyes. A student with dysgraphia and dyslexia, demoralized by weak-minded educators who think the mechanical aspects of writing are the only path to critical expression, survives public education to attend a prestigious college. A nonverbal child with cerebral palsy, "classified" with "moderate mental retardation" via inaccessible psychometric testing, fails to pass any of the standardized tests throughout his academic career, only to years later make dramatic gains and eventually pass all of his Regents' exams (only possible because he was allowed to stay in an inclusive setting). 

Chalkboards, pencils, and paper are not the only paths to learning--wait, let me retract that weak example and be far more blunt--reading, writing, and speaking are not the only paths to becoming a learner. If a blind child can be respected for his mind's capability to learn without paper and pencil, and is allowed to approach his learning in a nontraditional way (and one day he becomes the Governor of New York no less), then the fact remains that all children who face challenges in accessing traditional curriculum for learning should be viewed as having immeasurable potential to learn with the right alternative (or technological) supports.

Achieving inclusion for people with disabilities all boils down to one simple idea: we must enable their participation, not just "allow" their presence. If you invite me to communicate, my AAC device enables me to join in, rather than just stand by; if you invite me to play, my adaptive gaming tools make me a competitor not observer; if you invite me to show you how employable I am, my adapted technologies reveal my productivity, not merely my legal accommodations. I use the idea of "invite" not to condescend and say that people with disabilities must wait for mainstream acceptance and an "invitation" to be in the world, but rather as a challenge to the mainstream public--we need to recognize who are already members of our community and embrace their participation made possible by advancing technologies, which in turn also allow us all to retreat from prejudices. Limitations to any individual's participation in learning, work, and leisure activities in the 21st century has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with our perception of them as participants.

Welcome to the CogniTech Cafe Blog. Blogging is such a self-indulgent exercise. I will pontificate, of that I'm certain. But at least it will be for a reason that matters. Bear with me and I will try my best to make this a useful venue for all readers.