The Coming Tech and You

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on November 06, 2020 # Lifestyle

Technology has always been a friend of people with disabilities. In the last one hundred years, we’ve gone from Victorian rattan wheelchairs to the next big thing on the horizon, solar-powered electric chairs that can detect changes in the terrain at the same time they can tell your doctor your blood pressure or weight. In less than seventy-five years, biological technology like antibiotics has extended the life of all paralytics. There are some areas where little progress has been made – wound care, for instance – but in general, we are all healthier, can communicate better, and move around more easily because of tech.technology

The historical exclusion of the disabled from the American workforce is a product of the Industrial Revolution when working in a factory or even an office building created prohibitive obstacles for the disabled. On top of the stereotypes that the non-disabled carried around in their head – and still do. But in the current information, or digital, economy, brainpower, and problem-solving are much more valuable than brawn or repetitive work in one place. Theoretically, there should be fewer barriers to entry for the disabled. If a guy or gal rolls into your venture capital office with a fabulous idea for a killer app, will you care if they are in a chair or autistic or have CP?

Things keep moving in the direction of making all intellectual work accessible to all people, and ironically, this horrible pandemic is helping speed things up. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Thomas Friedman speculated on the nature of work in the post-pandemic era. The central, everybody-in-the-same-location workplace, for instance, is dying before our eyes. In the digital age, even in-face staff meetings are a waste of travel time. I’m in a chair, and like many of you, I’ve conducted my entire business life from my home office via telephone, email, and Zoom since March and saved countless hours of travel and transfer time. I happen to have a sit-down job – writing – but then again, millions of us have sit-down jobs, from college professors and students to computer engineers to internists. Here is how Mr. Friedman sees the effect of this Zoom revolution:

“As more work becomes modular, digitized, and disconnected from an office or factory, many more diverse groups of people – those living in rural areas, minorities, stay-at-home moms, and those with disabilities – will be able to compete for it from their homes.”

Assuming you do have to or want to go to a central work location to fraternized with your co-workers or manage a task in person, coming innovations in transportation will be making that easier, too. Now we have hand controls and zippy van lifts. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Volkswagen Inclusive Mobility Initiative. Nice title, huh? I haven’t read about any groundbreaking results of this effort, but the idea is to create self-driving cars specifically for the disabled community. All you have to do is roll into the vehicle, type in a location, and listen to your favorite podcast as you are delivered there. Or maybe have a Zoom call with your doctor to discuss your lumbago.

Apple, maybe the most forward-looking company on the planet, touts their ongoing commitment to creating communication technology “designed for everyone.” In a splendid two-minute infomercial called “Sady,” they show a severely disabled woman, Sady, helped into her chair in the morning and logging onto her Mac using the highly adaptive Switch Control. We then see two deaf people communicating via FaceTime, a blind father taking a picture of his son via iPhone instructions, and a woman in a chair starting her workout with an Apple Watch. All of these images then appear on Sady’s screen as she edits her own video. There are other technologies on the horizon that can correct the speech of someone with a speech impediment. Like me and my friend, Mr. Zoom, the means of communication will only become easier for all. What you actually communicate, of course, is up to you.

The substance of what you think and say – which could determine your professional livelihood – demands what one expert described in the Friedman piece as “radical reskilling.” That means you must constantly be learning new skills – “upskilling” – to keep up with technological advances in an everchanging world. So, stop watching those adorable cat meets llama videos and start learning Mandarin. It might help in communicating with your next boss.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.