Sunday, September 17, 2023

What are the difficult questions that we avoid asking? M-Enabling Summit 2023

"I worry that we have failed to effectively quantify the importance of having disabled people in every single space ... representation is incredibly impactful; there is so much reciprocity between disabled and non-disabled people negotiating and navigating spaces and processes together. There is value here that makes asking these questions worthwhile!"

The 2023 M-Enabling Summit will explore "AI and Digital Transformation: New Paradigms for Accessibility and Inclusion Strategies". In the run-up to the conference, one of the Summit speakers, Julie Eshleman, has agreed to share some of here insights from behaviour science to help people with disabilities the life they want and her expectations for the Summit. 

Julie is a behavior scientist and researcher with 20 years of experience working in the disability sector, helping make more spaces work better in more ways for more people. She applies behavior science to the systems where people need to thrive but might not be - this way she helps organizations plan and implement impactful policy and process changes so that more people are happy and successful. 

Q1: You are investigating how people with disabilities use technology to build the lives and experiences they want. What lead you to this field? And what are common misconceptions you encounter in this field? 

Julie: I started in this field because I have been working with disabled people for a long time, and began to feel a little uncomfortable with my relationship to how I was supporting people as a practitioner. Because of the kinds of activities that qualify as 'billable time', many clinicians struggle with the idea that the person in need of support is 'broken' and in need of 'fixing' - I felt like a better focus and use of my time was not on supporting disabled people individually but working with large organizations to make more policies and processes just work better for more people, and to create systems where more people can thrive and be successful. I think the most common misconception I encounter is that there are 'tech users' and 'tech experts' - these two groups overlap a lot more than we think, and we are just learning to include disabled tech users as the most important stakeholder group not only as consumers, but as designers, researchers, and practitioners. There isn't only one kind of expert in this space! 

Q2: Consumer electronics such as mobile phones, tablets and wearables are integrating more and more functionalities that help people with disabilities use the devices as well as access content and control the environment. How would you define the distinction between accessibility features and assistive features, and is this distinction even helpful? 

Julie: I tend to find that 'accessibility features' are features built in to consumer devices and software to make them easier to use for everyone (including disabled people), like adjustable font size and contrast, speech-to-text and text-to-speech, and live captioning. 'Assistive features' are more likely to be external devices or software applications to target specific kinds of compatible devices potentially needed for people with disabilities or impairments, and may include things like switch access for people with limited mobility, hearing aids for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, tactile input from prosthetics... The distinction between these two concepts may be helpful in terms of advocating for more inclusive designs of technology. There are a lot of examples on how both of these concepts are already being integrated into consumer electronics like smartphones being equipped with accessibility features like adjustable font size and contrast, screen readers, and speech to text; along with smartphone assistive features such as switch access and Braille displays. Ultimately, I think the goal is to find terms that encourage designers and manufacturers to make consumer devices that are as accessible as possible so that any consumer can get the most out of each device. Whether we call it accessibility or assistive, products that are more customizable and cooperate with other devices well will reach a wider market and have increased sales, so it is frankly just smart business. 

Q3: What are the difficult questions that we avoid asking when discussing how to facilitate access for people with disabilities to the workplace, education, social and public life? 

Julie: I think my questions are more closely related to disability and stigma associated with it - questions like "how do we balance the support needs of an individual with the needs of society as a whole? How do we find the synthesis between what works better for disabled people and what works better for everyone? How can we make sure disabled people have the same opportunities as non-disabled people? How can we build spaces that support positive changes in attitudes and perceptions toward disability and disabled people? How can we make sure disabled people have a LOUD voice in decision-making? Are we using these assistive technology tools to build the kind of life this person deserves? It is easy for experts (myself included!), or assistive technology professionals, or voc rehab therapists, or researchers to know what we are working towards: increased functionality, improved independence, more control and autonomy, better employment outcomes... but we aren't often reflective enough to think about what kind of life this disabled person wants to have and deserves. These ideas are often governed by what is funded - what technologies can this person afford?, what does their insurance cover?, what is this funding source willing to provide?... It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that our expectations are sometimes VERY LOW for what kind of quality, daily existence someone not only deserves to have but deserves to be supported to achieve. We get caught up in the process of finding and providing supports, and have to keep coming back to 'am I helping to build the kind of daily life this person deserves to enjoy? Am I finding tools to build the right experiences for this person and their family?' I worry that we have failed to effectively quantify the importance of having disabled people in every single space ... representation is incredibly impactful; there is so much reciprocity between disabled and non-disabled people negotiating and navigating spaces and processes together. There is value here that makes asking these questions worthwhile!

Q4: What are your expectations for the M-Enabling Summit and what would make your visit to the conference a success? 

Julie: I am anxious to hear about what different people and organizations are working on - M-Enabling pulls in such an impressive group of thought leaders and status-quo challengers. I enjoy hearing all of the different ways people are shaking things up in their organizations and sectors. I always leave M-Enabling with so many people to connect with on LinkedIn so I can keep following advancements and great work in the field. My conference visit will be a success when I learn about the work high-profile organizations are doing that are responsive to connections they have made at M-Enabling. Seeing these talks and networking conversations turn into collaborative actions by attendees is the most satisfying part of participating in M-Enabling! 

Julie's most recent work has been as a consulting researcher for a charity in the UK, Leonard Cheshire, helping to deliver assistive technology and understand the conditions under which people get the best use of their (assistive) technologies so that we can plan for organization-wide delivery. For any additional details, visit her LinkedIn page:

Link to the M-Enabling Summit: