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Conclusions & Recommendations

A variety of technological solutions exist whether discussing the present or the future, and more are under development, to facilitate the ability of people with disabilities to engage in life activities. The potential of many of these technologies, particularly those based on wireless connectivity and communications technologies are growing or morphing into the Internet of Things. In order to truly conceptualize the liberating value of these technologies, the Summit steering committee decided new innovative thinking needed to be encouraged and reinforced. This “thinking” gravitated toward systems of accessibility, rather than on aspects of the individual user, the technology, the context, or a single design factor.

Recognizing the need for new, unconventional, creative thinking, the Wireless RERC’s State of Technology (SoT) Summit: Envisioning Inclusive FUTURES, was designed using a different approach --  “Futures Thinking” -- as a departure from the traditional assessment of the state of the science and associated presentation of findings common in the field. The Summit brought together forty-five subject matter experts with a variety of backgrounds: disability advocacy, wireless technology, communications policy, emergency management, sensory access, aging and disability, wearable computing in order to engage in a deliberative exercise to imagine possible futures for wireless technologies, and what they might enable.

The Summit was grounded in research carried out in 2014 by the Wireless RERC, as well as in earlier studies, and focused on: 1) key social, economic, political and technological forces at play in the migration from legacy, analog technologies to mobile, digital technologies, and 2) exploration of the consequential futures for people with disabilities. Two rounds of Delphi polling (discussed earlier in the proceedings) collected and aggregated expert opinions on complex or ambiguous forecasting problems that often exceeded the capabilities of any one-area expert.  Building on these findings, the Summit was structured as a futures study, dialogic meeting, and served as the final phase of the assessment and forecasting process.  

The “dialogic meeting” approach, as implemented for the Summit, was a dynamic process open to conversations, comments and clarifications. The philosophical basis of the futures studies approach was that many ideas about potential futures exist (Rowland & Spaniol, 2015). The purpose of the futures process was to explore, analyze, compare, and critique competing concepts of “the future.” The Summit attendees engaged in dialog on the alternative possible inclusive future(s) of people with disabilities, in the context of technological migration, and explored innovative paths to a transformative future for people with disabilities. 

Key Themes
Participants discussed and identified the most novel and transformative ideas and common visionary themes across groups. Rising to the top were concerns for wireless technologies and systems that could stimulate inclusive solutions such as robotics, wearables, the Internet of Things, next-generation emergency communications and alerts, and assistive intelligence for auditory and visual navigation.  Looking to an inclusive future, not only were research and policy agenda items identified, but also challenges and recommendations on how to reach a future of inclusiveness. Several broad themes emerged from exploring the interrelationships of technological factors, use/user factors, connectivity factors, and social and policy factors. 

  • Technological factors were those in which wireless technologies become less device dependent, and increasingly a part of a universally designed “setting” that responds to, or even anticipates, the needs of the user. Functional limitations are mitigated by technology enhanced environments. Ideas here also included the vision that shifts from assistive to facilitative and augmentative, in which individuals were less limited by characteristics than enabled (or enhanced) by augmentative technology. 
  • Use/User factors related to the way a user interacts with information, alerts and environmental sensors. The Internet of Things (IoT) discussions facilitated contexts that enhance learning and workplace functioning – including new “displays” (interfaces) and ways of interacting with technology. Innovative approaches to informing, guiding and assisting people with disabilities to navigate during emergency and disasters were viewed as an important concern. 
  • Connectivity factors were those that impacted the underlying wireless technologies, platforms, and protocols that power connected environments. The focus was less on devices but rather systems and approaches to device use. The Internet of Things approach which positions devices and information display at the point of need or use rather than requiring change in behavior to accommodate the device constraints and limitations was again brought to the forefront.  
  • Social and policy factors were those which anticipate social changes that are driven by new technologies, as well as providing input to the design and imagining of new technologies. These factors are both driven by policy and regulatory considerations, and in turn, can inform necessary change in the regulatory context to enhance the opportunities the technologies offer people with disabilities to fully engage and participate in society. An emergent idea from the Summit was rethinking the role of policy and policymaking from a “hammer” wielded after product completion, to a key component in the product design and development process. More broadly this theme invited a more expansive role for design and design thinking in policy and product development.

Challenges and Barriers to Inclusivity
In speculating about factors that influenced the implementation of new ideas, technologies and process, several challenges came to the forefront. These included:

  • Perceptions and Assumptions
  • These included factors that were technology specific as well as those dealing with use and context. Reliability of the devices was seen as a major factor. What happens if a device becomes critical but is subject to failure, or is unpredictable in its reliability? What processes are in place as failsafe, or backups.
  • Small or impractical markets – concern was expressed that device innovation would be limited by the perception that these were small or complicated markets that were not worth designing for.
  • People with disabilities will always need a caregiver, on the other hand, technology could offer support (for instance, socially assistive robotics) to substitute for or aid caregivers.
  • “Us” versus “Them” situation will persist due to multiple divides rich-poor- with disability, without a disability, language divide. 
  • Philosophical/ Ethical 
  • The current approaches to technology make significant distinctions between human and technology. Will “post-universal design approaches” apply connected technologies to further sidestep the divides? Is there a limit to what modification would make you no longer human?
  • Can a user be required to use technology? Will there be new kinds of technological divides?
  • When does assistive technology become augmentative? How does the design process need to take into account what constitutes baseline abilities? Could assistive devices become “unfair advantages” relative to the un-augmented?
  • What are the ethical consequences of hacking or disruption of the flow of information/data flowing over connectivity links? Who is responsible if something happens? 
  • Economic/Policy
  • What is the impact on employment if hiring becomes based upon how enhanced a person is?
  • Who shoulders the accommodation cost (employer provided vs Bring Your Own Devices)?
  • What regulatory and reimburse changes need to take place to avoid inhibiting technology development and increasing adoption?
  • Privacy issues (constraint), who “sees” data, who can aggregate or use data, who “owns” data streams? What rights or control abilities do the users have?
  • Technological
  • Do different types of data get handled differently?
  • What design features get chosen (usability vs accessibility); scalable and modular?
  • What standards and protocols govern device development and adoption?
  • What processes can help re-envision the concept of “display” or presentation of data.
  • How can devices be re-imagined to optimally promote inclusion and engagement. 

The Summit process also produced a number of recommendations and observations that could help advance the innovation and development in accessible/usability wireless technologies.

  • Usability is critical – technology needs to be “out of the box” ready. The design process should be enhanced so that devices be intuitively usable, or conversely, be easily personalizable? 
  • Devices could be pre-configured not to a single setting but to a range of user-types and use cases. It was suggested that this could be done through narrowing the ecosystem of solutions pertinent to that user.
  • Proactively expand the design process to bring in a greater range of stakeholders – scientists, users, manufactures, regulators and policymakers.
  • Education, outreach and awareness efforts should be dynamic and integral to both ongoing and adaptive/changing environments. This is in reference to not only technology, but to the changing circumstances of people with disabilities.
  • Encourage greater harmonization between U.S. and global entities, in private (industry) as well as governmental frames.
  • Take a broader view of markets – what might be of incremental benefit here in the U.S., could be of direct benefit to people with disabilities in developing countries.
  • Products and services should be universally designed and also take into account cultural sensitivity.
  • Think beyond the “usual players” - An always on, always ready, always working technology ecosystem will require a lot of power, so power companies would need to be early allies.

Developing Future Research and Policy Approaches
A set of opportunities and challenges that impact development of Inclusive Futures are noted above. While an important first step, these variables also lend themselves to potential policy solutions for addressing short gaps. A few possible research questions with policy implications emergent at the Summit are mentioned below.

  • Present state- disability can be stigmatizing. What social and awareness steps can be undertaken to minimize this perception?
  • What kinds of social research can be undertaken to help inform evidence-based policy and design policy incentives that facilitate innovation instead of prescribe outcomes?
  • Can design parameters be developed that take into account the philosophy that humans, technology and environment not be separated but be inter related; how can systems be designed that are holistic and inclusive in nature?
  • How can policy be designed to take into account system level societal outcomes as an innovation driver?
  • How do we research and understand the social model of disability in the future?
  • Can stakeholder and participatory processes address the logistical challenge of getting everyone on the same page?
  • Can legislative and regulatory approaches be designed to address current constraints, using collaborative design processes?
  • What new online approaches can be developed that use social media to enhance data collection as well as dissemination modes?
  • How can wireless devices enhance information flow using new and novel wireless interfaces and display technologies?

In closing, the visionary theme from the opening to the concluding dialog emphasized:  A transformative future is an inclusive future. This became the Summit take-away for reinforcing the Wireless RERC’s commitment to ensure an accessible mobile wireless future for people with disabilities.

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The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant number 90RE5007-01-00. The opinions contained in this website are those of the Wireless RERC and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or NIDILRR.