Advances in technology must be accessible to people with disabilities

I recently reflected on how my life has changed since I was a visually impaired college kid. I now interact daily with helpful tools that I could not have imagined in the 1990s or when I was the transatlantic leader (exchange) of the European Union.

If designed and implemented well, new tools in science and technology will be accessible to people with disabilities. But if the burden is shifted among larger societal actors, such as developers and employers, the rights and equality of disabled lawyers may be diminished or even lost. I thought this column might explore some of the issues surrounding technology involvement.

When I hosted and co-hosted a workshop at the German Marshall Fund USA Summit on Inclusion in Technology, I thought we all live in an amazing time of profound social and technological change that is impacting historically marginalized communities.

Specifically, there seems to be a temptation to promote digital access for the public sector while offending the private sector.

In July 2022, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, chaired a hearing before the Special Committee on Aging that explored the barriers and challenges seniors and people with disabilities face in accessing critical federal government online resources. He was looking for answers to the question of why there are still barriers to access to the web. With the advent of technology, perfect actors are few and far between.

For most of us who haven’t officially driven or seen it, driving the semi-familiar 1968 Ford Mustang seems like a belated opportunity. Cars in the mid-21st century, even in so-called “smart cities,” are generally not inclusive of people with disabilities. I had the pleasure and inspiration of discussing “smart cities” with the Reverend Tim Adams at the League of Maryland’s fall conference.

(If self-driving vehicles ever become an accessible reality, I hope a classic car like my Knight Rider is less prone than the current guide dog.)

There is promise in the potential intersection between the health care needs of people with disabilities and advances in health care technology. In 2022, Health Affairs published an issue documenting and explaining disability-related health care disparities. I am optimistic that if we shift the focus of our health system to an integrated model of health, with personal empowerment and sometimes incentives, we can match the health and wellness scores of other countries.

I think about the growing market for “wearables” that monitor physical activity, vital signs, and sleep. They play an important role in communication and information exchange with service providers. However, much of the digital domain remains inaccessible or completely unusable, hindering real improvements in healthcare for people with disabilities.

Maryland’s next secretary of disability must pay particular attention to the emerging intersection of health care and technology.

“Hard law” measures are needed, setting a floor, not a ceiling on what can happen. In one example, the United States Access Council, an agency that promotes accessibility for people with disabilities, has issued a preliminary notice of proposed rulemaking, a major administrative law step aimed at promulgating Federal regulations.

This federal agency seeks public input on the design, type, and use of self-service transaction machines, including self-service kiosks. These are inaccessible to many people with disabilities.

Additionally, anti-discrimination law focuses on the “victim” at a later stage in the social paradigm: failed interactions, perceptions of rights violations, and subsequent litigation. By increasing the use of AI data, innovative guardrails can be installed to promote access and prosperity for all.

Any best practices should include disability as a dimension of diversity and as part of all diversity efforts. In order to realize this, we must all actively work to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face so that they can flourish as part of society.

Associated Black Charities’ Women on the Move program is a model for the disability rights community. I see these kinds of quality initiatives for women of all backgrounds and people of color, but few of them focus on the economic empowerment of people with disabilities. Known for its clothing and salons, I would consider any of these to be handicap accessible.

The next Disability Secretary can play an active role in bringing together financiers, DBE space leaders, technologists and other thought leaders to develop ways to economically empower people with disabilities.

If both sides of politics approach power with optimism and thoughtfulness, there is a huge opportunity to improve the lives of people with disabilities and the general public. Maryland needs its next disability secretary to be a proactive, technology-driven voice for people with disabilities.

Gary C. Norman, Esq., LL.M., is a past chairman of the Maryland Civil Rights Commission. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.

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