Toward a More Accessible Future

Gloved hand with scalpelI’ve long lived with a minor disability that at times makes it difficult for me to function as others do. I’m referring to the palsy I mentioned in a recent article. I refer to it as “palsy” in the dictionary sense of the term; I exhibit tremors nearly constantly, though I’ve no idea where these shakes comes from. Perhaps I’m simply a tremendously nervous person. I’ve never even referred to it as a disability until now, but it truly has disrupted my life in various ways. Try to convince a job interviewer that you’re a good salesman as you shake and twitch like a chihuahua.

Anyway, the palsy probably shouldn’t bother me as much as it does; it isn’t a crippling palsy, disabling enough to render me incapable of using my hands for most tasks. I’d never make it as a surgeon, however, and I’d be a sorry competitor in a game of Operation. But some days it’s hardly even noticeable (to others). Unfortunately, most days it is quite noticeable, enough for people to draw conclusions about me based on the way my hands shake or my body twitches. And sometimes — often enough for me to mention — I’m treated quite disrespectfully, just because I shake a little (or a lot, depending on how my body decides to behave).

Most people I’ve encountered in life are kind, but there are a few sorry individuals who find it entertaining to make a spectacle of themselves at my expense, and unfortunately I’m not as thick-skinned as those who are better able to deflect the misguided judgments of others. It’s one thing when someone notices a shakiness to your movements and remarks upon it with sincere concern; it’s quite another when they assume things about you due to something you have no control over. Last summer, for example, while lounging out by the pool area of my apartment complex, a young woman rather rudely accused me of being on drugs. (It turned out she had been high on hallucinogens all afternoon.)

But my palsy — or shakiness, or whatever we want to call it — isn’t nearly as disabling as another condition I’m afflicted by (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out the two conditions are related). I live with a more disabling condition which renders me unable to get out of bed at times, sometimes for days on end. Fortunately I’m able to access the Internet during those times; otherwise, my only interaction with the outside world would be through the person I live with — and as much as I love and enjoy the company of the person I live with, cabin fever still sets in from time to time. The Internet has been a lifesaver in countless ways for people living with a disability (or disabilities), enabling those of us who are either temporarily or permanently housebound to communicate with the outside world.

Still, as enabling as the Internet is, I wish it was more accessible, and accessible to more people. Many people have envisioned a future in which the Web is connected directly to the brain; the idea has been circulating for decades and popular culture now seems to be predicting the notion as an inevitable step in the evolution of technology. Google’s Project Glass is a far cry from a true brain-to-computer interface (BCI) but brings us a small step closer to that fantasy, potentially enabling those without the use of their limbs to interact with the Internet. Yet the technology still doesn’t offer much comfort to a person like my mother, crippled by dementia and unable to use her voice to command such a device. I applaud efforts like Google’s, as they push us toward a more accessible future, but I live for the day that someone in my mom’s situation will be able to communicate and interact with others through actions initiated by direct electrical contact with the brain.

That day may never come — at least, not in the fully immersive way many of us may be expecting (i.e., The Matrix). The BCI technologies that are emerging allow our brains to drive certain mechanical actions, such as using brainwaves to drive a car or to control robots.

Some BCI systems even claim to communicate “thoughts” from one brain to another, albeit quite rudimentarily, and many more BCIs are in the works. We can imagine all sorts of ways our brains might be able to interface with the world around us: I’ve long fantasized about a device that would enable me to write while I’m sleeping; Chris Pirillo has wished his dreams were available as video podcasts. I can only imagine some type of brain-computer interface making these desires possible.

Yet as powerful a driver of innovation imagination is, it doesn’t always lead to the results we’d hoped for. Where is free energy? Does anyone in their right mind truly believe we’ll be able to teleport our bodies from one location to another — and maintain, with absolute integrity, our initial composition(s)? Even ideas that seem far less outlandish will probably never be realized in nearly the way we’d imagined, as fellow LockerGnome contributor Matt Ryan reminded us the other day in his article about flying cars. The PAL-V is a cute little helicopter I’d certainly enjoying putting around in, but it’s not the flying DeLorean we’ve been fantasizing about.

Yet I remain optimistic. Perhaps we won’t see The Jetsons-like flying vehicles in our lifetimes, nor head-plugs that would so completely trick our brains into believing we exist in a fantasy world that we’d forget which world was “real” — but those fantasies don’t matter for practical purposes. For those of us living in the present era, what is more important is for even the most rudimentary access to life’s transactions be made available to everyone. It is not only access to the Internet that I am concerned with (though that is vital in this day and age); it’s the “simple” things as well, like being able to deposit a check at your local financial institution. Technology seems to be improving access at an acceptable rate; the problem is, how long will it take for enough people to adjust their attitudes toward the disabled? Assistive technologies do not always work as well as the people making the technologies desire them to; they only work as well as the people — both disabled and abled — utilize them.

Image above shared by johnny_automatic at the Open Clip Art Library

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