2000 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents


SOCIAL OPPORTUNITIES, BARRIERS AND DANGERS
IN THE 21ST CENTURY

By
Dr Geoff Busby MBE
D.UNIV (MIDDX) MA FBCS CEng
C/O EASAMS Ltd, West Hanningfield Road,
Chelmsford, Essex, CM2 8HN
geoffrey.busby@gecm.com



As we begin a new century so we have to recognise the Opportunities, Barriers and Dangers which lay before us. I am not going to pretend to be a George Orwell or an H.G. Wells; they were remarkably correct in their long-term predictions, however the rate of change in technology and its price makes this kind of long-term prediction virtually impossible. This paper therefore will address the social consequences, particularly those affecting people with impairments, over the next ten years and even that is ambitious.

Taking a global view the picture has to be bright as surely technology will increasingly continue to empower, creating equity in at least the developed societies, or am I being glib? What comes first, the social perceptions and the legislation to bring about this kind of equity, or the technology with all its hidden dangers calling for higher ethical standards in order to maintain moral control over it. The roller coaster of emerging technology and the opportunity for good and evil are awesome and therefore IT professionals and financial systems are going to be required to have heightened levels of ethical standards which go before the desire of fiscal gain.

Being positive one has to think that society and, the individuals within the societies, will become increasingly aware of the social model of disability. In turn this will effect the developers into producing products to empower people with impairments, as opposed to that, which may bring about impairments, as is the current situation. This will be the opportunity for the technology industry, but it has to be recognised as such.

I wish to discuss the four areas in which, in my opinion will effect, and be affected, by technology.

Legislation

In the UK part three of the Disability Discrimination Act nineteen ninety-five has, since October 1st, begun its enactment. This element of the Act requires providers of goods, facilities and services to make them accessible to people with impairments. For example, Discrimination occurs when a disabled person is treated less favourably than someone else and: The treatment is for a reason relating to the person's disability and that reason does not apply to the other person. This treatment cannot be justified and Unlawful discrimination occurs when a service provider discriminates, as described above, by doing one of the following:

Refusing to serve a disabled person.

Offering a disabled person a lower standard of service.

Offering a disabled person less favourable terms.

Failing to make alterations to a service or facility, which makes it impossible, or unreasonably difficult, for a disabled person to use.

This is all well and good but rather typically of my nation there are few major anomalies.

For Example, Those who are required to make adjustments have four years to do so, despite knowledge of these requirements being available since nineteen ninety-five. The Act does not apply to transportation providers, education and public transportation vehicles.

On a more personal note I suspect this means that public toilets for disabled people will continue to be as inadequate as they are now, for at least the duration of the four years remaining. I use the word least candidly, as the definition of assessable toilet seems to be one which has the required equipment posted anywhere and possibly one which you are required to be ambulant to enter. There seems to be the suggestion that there is a dichotomy between financial gain and making provision for those with impairments or those who are disabled by social structures.

The Disability Discrimination Act Nineteen ninety-five is very similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act accept the latter is based on reinforcement through the legal system. What I would really like to see is a Pan European piece on Human Rights Legislation supported by the European Union. At this moment its doesn't seem like this is happening but I trust the future will bring a more logical structure within the Union. Our Act is not addressing disability within the confines of the Social model, which concerns me greatly.

This point is being reinforced through the guide to the Disability Discrimination Act, which does not give any indication of positive effects of compliance. If we point out that there are twenty two million people, in the European Union, who have a hearing impairment, five million with Visual impairments, five million with speech impairment, seven million with limited dexterity, five million with limited use of hands/arms, seven million with weak grip, seven million with hand tremor, nine million with cognitive impairment and twenty two million with restricted mobility, it is fairly obvious that by not designing for all, developers are not utilising the full potential of the market available to them. These figures apply to the telecommunications industry but give some indication to all service and technology providers of the potential market afforded to them by making their products universally accessible. It is this type of positive message that we need to take into the next century in order to increase awareness and profitability, which has been missed, at least in the last decade. One hopes that this decade will witness inclusive societies.

I am currently working on two projects allied to the above. The first is a universally accessible web site offering global information on issues and information pertaining to people with disabilities with links to e-commerce. The second is a project, which will make information available from libraries accessible via all types of human interfaces from any location.

Consequences of New Technologies.

In short the necessity for manual dexterity and cognitive ability, from the masses, will decrease leaving a dangerous void in peoples lives. This void is not unlike that which is faced by people with severe impairments today; hence by finding the solutions to filling this void we will automatically do so for people with disabilities.

The key to the above will be human interfaces. Although there are numerous methods already available the need for physical contact will surely be replaced by voice or gesture, not to mention thought transmission. That said I see little hope of replacing the more essential professions such as carers, medical staff and all the emergency services, which will have increased demand. There can be little doubt that broad band communication will offer huge potential for interactive worldwide communications and the sharing of knowledge. Similarly the requirements to travel will decrease, with the consequence of environmental friendly societies being created. Physical highways of travel will give way to information highways, hence bringing about equality for those with mobility impairments thus creating a truly inclusive global information rich world. The implications inherent in the above statement are that patterns of social behaviour will change causing equity of opportunity, recognising the environmental benefits of such a structure. It is my hope therefore that the less economically developed countries will gain from this technology as well as the more privileged amongst us.

Enlarging on the above, as a member of the British Computer Society and International Federation of Information Processors, I am ethically bound to advocate the use of modern communications, both terrestrial and satellite, in order for world class expertise to be made available in the form of professionals working in the community. Wide band and satellite technology will undoubtedly empower peoples of the less economically developed countries. Of course it also allows people with severe disabilities, who, in normal circumstances would not be able to access higher education and/or employment, to do so from their home or from local centres.

For the less economically developed countries the potential for remote education and expert medical guidance is enormous. Much can be achieved via CD ROM, particularly in areas which often require a three or four day journey to reach the nearest access to electronic communications. There is a need to create a web of low trajectory satellites in order to afford such communication in remote areas.

Virtual reality will present solutions to cognitive impairments and those with behaviour difficulties, it will also add a new dimension to the physically impaired, as indeed it does to the temporary able bodied (tabs), by providing virtual experiences.

Medical and ethical.

What are the barriers to this world. The world is at a crossroads and, if we are to avoid the catastrophe of a few reaping the gains of modern technology at the cost of marginalisation of the majority we will be putting in danger our very existence. Control mechanisms have to be devised in order to avert individual greed. Achieving this will surely see medical science creating solutions to global illnesses such as Aids and Cancer, not to mention the food industry producing enough to feed the worlds populations. In saying this I am not turning my back on the need to control the population of the world beyond that which is reasonably sustainable economically.

Conversely, there is inherent in the last statement a curious degree of synergy, for without doubt the technologies of the next century will allow such breakthroughs in medical science, the ability to produce genetically modified food, and a means to empower people with disabilities will not be beyond mans ability. Will this power solve global problems, in particular provide solutions to overcome or avoid impairments? I doubt it, more likely these concepts will appeal to man's greed. I would therefore suggest that altruistically technology should focus on providing medical and technical solutions which, will prevent killing diseases, assist to utilise the vast areas of the world such as deserts and oceans and, create the means to impart knowledge which will bring about ethical and equitable global structure.

Within the coming decade I cannot believe that it will not be possible for genetic scientists to increase the longevity of mans life even further. I find myself on an ethical quandary, in considering the possibilities of genetic regeneration of diseased organs and brain re-constructor when damaged. Looking further ahead it will undoubtedly become feasible to stimulate the necessary physiology activities to grow or regrow limbs. Already we have the research into cloning which, will ultimately lead to the human species. Issues such as these raise tremendous ethical and moral dilemmas, which I am unable to pass an opinion on. Suffice it to say man has never been able to oppress the desire for innovation, or perceived innovation. I truly feel however the ethical and moral issues contained in the above scenario require careful thought.

Conclusions

In short I am expressing my own wish and desire for the technology to become socially accountable. It would be my hope that society would be inclusive of people with impairments and I therefore return to the question of Human Interface. In the near future we will control technologies through gesture either in a void or through physical contact. Developments in the area of control through four-dimensional movement strengthen through the use of time span, interface developments through touch surfaces, including clothing, are being achieved. Non-conductive material sandwiched by two layers of textile when pressed creates cause and effect. In the long term however I would hope that we would be able to use our thoughts to engender such control.

It is my belief therefore, that future generations will witness vast opportunities to create a more equitable world in which people with impairments will not be disabled. The potential is obvious however, barriers to this potential surround issues of perceptions of disability, ignorance of the need to protect our environment and avoiding disease and hunger. Most importantly will be the ability to divert innovators away from the temptations of monetary gain. The danger is immense, surrounding areas of control, morals, and ethics and mans unquenchable desire to pushback the boundaries of science. I am certain that despite these dangers the coming decade and century will see technology facilitating global equity for people with impairments and the harmonisation of global ethics.


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.