Innovation = Design for Everyone: a Review of Kel Smith's "Digital Outcasts"

In late 1998 and early 1999, I began my journey that would ultimately lead to my career as a technologist, working on bringing independence through electronic information and digital means. As a student entering university, I had somewhat of a BLASÉ attitude toward what technology could do for me. I of course understood that screen reading technology could make my life tremendously different from many other blind people who attended university before me. I had seen a model of the Kurzweil Reading machine from 1988, which took nearly five minutes to scan a page and render it to somewhat understandable speech. By fall of 1998, I had experience with such personal technologies as the Braille 'n Speak. I took pride in quickly learning and understanding these technologies and teaching them to others. And yet, these technologies for me were simply a means to an end-nothing more than something to gain personal independence.

It wasn't until my freshman year at the City University of new York as i began volunteering at the newly established CUNY Assistive Technology Services project that I truly understood how assistive technologies could help others. Since I knew screen reading technology well, I was asked to help maintain the assistive technology center; thus began my professional foray into adaptive technologies. But, more important, it began several years of my work with students with disabilities, leading me to fully comprehend the benefits of access technologies for others.

One of the very first students I got to work with was Angela-a perfectly intelligent student with a motor disability who was unable to write or express herself due to a motor disability and a speech impediment. As my colleague and I worked with her to test and devise a technology solution, we learned that Angela could use the end of a pencil on a keyboard with a key guard to type. Nothing prior to that simple solution had given Angela the hope of communicating with her family and friends.

What Angela was able to accomplish in 1999 represented an early example of what has become a vital link between technical innovative solutions and human beings with disabilities. In ten to twelve years after my contact with Angela and many other people like her, I have seen technology take a leap that no one could have truly imagined; or, if someone had imagined it, the rapidity with which technology changes have come about has left many people dizzied with astonishment. It has been difficult to explain to someone who does not work with people with disabilities on a daily basis the profound nature of technology to bring about independence-the sheer capacity of technology to allow people with disabilities to travel, read, be social, or simply live.

Enter Kel Smith’s Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward Without Leaving People behind--a book that takes the complex subjects of adaptive technology, usability, and accessibility, recasting them into a new, overarching paradigm of innovation. In eloquent language, Kel’s book not only manages to provide numerous examples of current high-tech solutions that enable people with disabilities to improve their daily lives, but it uses these adaptive solutions as illustrative instances of innovation and inclusive design. Stories focusing on the web, gaming, medical technologies, rehabilitation, mobile applications, and virtual reality allow Kel to fully demonstrate the solutions that people with disabilities currently use; by example, however, Kel’s story-telling highlights the gaps that exist in spite of these demonstrable improvements in technological solutions.

Where this book succeeds the most is in its ability to cast accessibility as an inclusive design principle-which, if properly wielded, could lead to revolutionary technologies that addresses the needs of all populations. While illustrating this again and again, Kel returns to the foremost concern that matters when we consider product design: Be it web sites, mobile applications, neural interfaces, devices in new, unforeseen categories, or revisions to existing products or services, there is simply one thing that cannot be forgotten-that is “people.” At the heart of all design and development lie people who must live with those products.

Kel Smith’s “Digital outcasts” succeeds at redefining innovation as a function of people considered through the lens of inclusive design. This strategic repositioning of accessibility and innovation is a no small matter. Reaching more than a billion+ number of people believed to have some form of disability will not only require the tenacity to understand their needs, but, even more important, will require us to start with a broader all-inclusive perspective.

I can only hope that Angela’s of the world will have the opportunity to be included in our world starting in their younger years rather than having to wait until they are college-aged. Following the type of strategic thinking so ably defined in Kel’s book will certainly help us as we attempt to reach people in all their lives.