Technology is advancing at an incredible rate, and the improvements to our everyday lives have been equally incredible. As these innovations continue, society stands to benefit greatly. Yet, the question of technological benefits is not as simple as it might appear. Immense resources go into these developments, yet the social implications of technology include a crucial question: Who benefits from technological innovation? Consider, for example, the elevator. Our lives have changed drastically with elevators making it possible to build vertically and to furnish spaces many floors above ground level. Yet, imagine if they were not made accessible to those in wheelchairs. An entire dimension of the urban landscape would be unavailable to a vast swathe of the population. In addition to the blatant unfairness of this negligence, many other social detriments would follow this lack of accessibility.
Just as we have ensured that the most important technological innovations are available to people with a wide range of abilities, we must look ahead to the future of innovation, as well. According to a recent blog by Sujeeth Kanuganti, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that a full quarter of adults in the United States have a disability that impacts their ability to complete activities of daily life, and it is expected that the proportion will continue to grow. Future technological developments need to consider the accessibility of product design, making them available to as many as possible, yet that accessibility requires the investment of resources. When convincing technology developers and investors to put those precious resources into accessibility concerns, a few different lines of reasoning can help push in that crucial direction.
In the first place, a straightforward ethical argument can encourage technology developers to consider accessibility in product design. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Social resources are necessary to create an environment in which innovation can take place. For example, infrastructure and contract protections require social resources at the highest level of society, and teaching and public services must be provided at the level of individual interactions, as well. With so many social resources invested in technological developments, the outcomes of that design should benefit as many members of society in return.
In practical terms, some innovations require mass adoption in order to reach their furthest benefit. User-generated content is the most effective when as many people as possible join that user pool, not only for accuracy but also to add new analytical categories. When new technologies and designs are made accessible, they will create a broad base of user-generated content.
It cannot be denied that economic concerns are foremost among developers’ concerns. When products are made accessible, they open new markets and can capture the attention of vast new groups of consumers. Though innovations sometimes continue to ignore those possible users who cannot afford luxury products, the desire to capture as many consumers as possible tends to dominate the thinking of technology developers. When products are fully accessible, even more users can purchase them, adding revenue that can be used for further research and development.
One of the principles of product development is that innovation begets more innovation. For instance, while in pursuit of accessibility in product design, developers may stumble on other innovations that are altogether unexpected. This cumulative process of innovation may be simply additive, or it may become multiplicative or even exponential. The scope of possible innovation that can result from the pursuit of accessibility is impossible to know.
Hearing Accessibility and Product Design
As we innovate new technology, hearing accessibility is one of the areas of utmost concern. The smartphone is the interface through which many of our technological developments occur, requiring both visual and audible accessibility. When we consider smartphone applications alongside other audio devices, such as smart speakers, the accessibility needs are immense. These arguments make it clear that new technology must be made accessible for as many users as possible, and hearing accessibility cannot be neglected. As we look ahead to a technologically enhanced future, those with hearing impairment and hearing loss can expect to find their lives enhanced alongside all other users.
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