How Disability Culture is Changing the Way We View Innovation

Published January 17, 2022

We have innovation to thank for hundreds of inventions many of us take for granted today. Our transportation, the various ways we can communicate, and even our entertainment are directly influenced by innovative technology. But technology without accessible design proves time after time to lead to less than helpful or even failed products. Accessibility is the key ingredient to any successful design, which is why the evolution of disability culture continues to push innovation to new and greater heights.

The evolution of disability culture

Definitions of disability culture vary, but its general descriptor focuses on a collective set of views and expressions people with disabilities tend to share. Disability culture speaks to a shared history of oppression paired with a bond of resilience tying people with disabilities together, regardless of the different characteristics involved in any one individual’s disability.

The disability rights movement has helped build a strong foundation for what we now understand to be disability culture. In the movement’s earlier stages, while taking cues from the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement responded to societal inequalities and institutional discrimination. Organizations and disability activists called for legislative changes leading to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA not only changed how people were treated within the workplace, but it also began to shift American culture surrounding disabled people at large.

The modern disability rights movement continues to push for equitable treatment for disabled people by encouraging an end to stigma. Due to continued activism, mainstream culture is more inclusive and accessible than ever before.

Missteps in innovation

Today the importance of accessibility is more of a priority in businesses, workspaces, and the world of technology than at any other time in history. However, innovators are still learning how vital inclusion and accessibility in design truly are.

Such oversights are shown through failed innovative projects, like Twitter’s Voice Tweets, which in their release completely overlooked the need for captioning. The social media company has since apologized, but their oversight is a prime example of the overwhelming need to make accessibility a part of any design. Technological stumbles also appear as a direct response to calls for accessibility. Without including voices from the disabled community to which a design is created, companies inevitably miss the mark. In a Vox article, disability activists coined the term “disability dongles” in reply to a collection of shiny, new, yet useless designs, including a stair-climbing wheelchair incapable of performing as promised.

Liz Jackson, founding member of Disabled Lists (an organization keeping up with design trends as they relate to disability culture) explains:

Disability Dongle: A well-intended elegant yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had.

The wheelchair design company did not immediately respond to requests from people with mobility impairments, who continue to advocate for simple solutions like more access to ramps and elevators. Instead, it offered an unsolicited answer to a question that was never asked. When innovation ignores perspectives from people with disabilities, it ignores many valuable discussions and possible solutions that could significantly improve the end product.

Disability culture affects everyone

Disability culture does not just include people with disabilities. It influences all people interested in a more accessible society. This idea is well-illustrated through global movements like the Valuable 500, a worldwide initiative putting the need for accessibility to the forefront of over 500 business leadership agendas.

Being more accessible means more diverse streams of thought, bigger and more unique ideas and, more perspectives. Mindful innovation informed of disability culture broadens innovative thinking. It’s not just more inclusive to people with disabilities but also opens the door to a fresher and more complex approach to technology.

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