When dealing with the otherness of disability, the Victorians in their shame built huge out-of-sight asylums, and their legacy of “them” and “us” continues to this day. Two hundred years later, technologies offer us an alternative view. The digital age is shattering barriers, and what used to the norm is now being challenged.
What if we could change the environment, rather than the person? What if a virtual assistant could help a visually impaired person with their online shopping? And what if a robot “buddy” could help a person with autism navigate the nuances of workplace politics? These are just some of the questions that are being asked and which need answers as the digital age challenges our perceptions of normality.
The treatment of people with developmental conditions has a chequered history. In towns and cities across Britain, you will still see large Victorian buildings that were once places to “look after” people with disabilities, that is, remove them from society. Things became worse still during the time of the Nazis with an idealisation of the perfect and rejection of Darwin’s idea of natural diversity.
Today we face similar challenges about differences versus abnormalities. Arguably, current diagnostic systems do not help, because they diagnose the person and not “the system”. So, a child has challenging behaviour, rather than being in distress; the person with autism has a communication disorder rather than simply not being understood.
In contrast, the digital world is all about systems. The field of human-computer interaction is about how things work between humans and computers or robots. Philosopher Andy Clark argues that humans have always been natural-born cyborgs – that is, we have always used technology (in its broadest sense) to improve ourselves.
The most obvious example is language itself. In the digital age we can become truly digitally enhanced. How many of us Google something rather than remembering it? How do you feel when you have no access to wi-fi? How much do we favour texting, tweeting and Facebook over face-to-face conversations? How much do we love and need our smartphones?