Innovating Assistive Technology

Last spring, I was sitting on a subway in Beijing watching the advert TV display a ten-minute video describing how to improve accessibility for those with disabilities. It became clear that the Chinese government found accessibility important for its expansion plans, and not only for those with disabilities but anyone that may have challenges. This is nothing new in the United States, which created the regulatory infrastructure with the Fair Housing Act of 1971 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, as the imminent leader in technology, China’s showcasing of accessibility for all is notable progress. If accessibility can become important to Chinese entrepreneurs, I see China as one of the leaders in inventing assistive technologies (AT). Nevertheless, innovating assistive technologies is a challenge for entrepreneurs globally. In this post, I am going to discuss how modern innovation methods combined with outside-the-box thinking can not only provide better technologies but can also add value to everyone involved in the disability community.

Find the Problem and Solve It

Modern entrepreneurship has primarily focused on the “find a problem and solve it” thought process. In India, as told by Steven White a professor at Tsinghua University, entrepreneurs are told to go out in the community and take a picture of a problem. After that, they begin to build the solution and business plan around that sole challenge. Innovating for those with disabilities is not much different, the only problem is that there are a vast number of disabilities and each one is unique. If an innovator wants to provide technology for a spinal cord injury, they must begin to understand that a spine can be injured in various ways. Instead of focusing on all spinal cord injuries, an ineffective course due to its gravity, it is better to identify a specific challenge that needs to be solved and begin the ideation process.

Ideation is Key to Finding Solution

Once the specific problem is identified it is good for innovators to get out and begin discussing the problem with lots of people; this includes people that have this disability, caretakers, medical providers, and technology experts. The conversation should be focused on encouraging people to talk as much as possible about the challenges with the main question from the entrepreneur being why. (Why is this a challenge? Why do you move that way? Why is this device important?) True innovation is a process. It takes discussions, an evolution of ideas, and a whole lot of failures to ultimately find a solution for a challenge related to a disability. It is during these discussions that ideas will begin to present themselves, a doctor may tell you that they believe the biggest challenge for those with a learning disability is retaining the information, but when talking with someone with the disability they may counter that with specific reasons why retention is difficult for them. Take all that information and begin to put the pieces together. Use post-it’s on a wall, graphic organizers to structure thoughts, whatever is needed to begin putting the puzzle together. Unless the entrepreneur is disabled or part of the disability community, there is going to be a high learning curve. Involving members of the community as part of the start-up team adds tremendous value to the whole entrepreneurial endeavor. This should be a goal.

User Design Creates User-Centered Assistive Technologies

As the ideation evolves into a solution, working directly with members of the community is incredibly important. User design is the only way to ensure that the technology is made for the consumer. For too long researchers and entrepreneurs created things that they believed would help the disability community, which many products did, however, the users had to adapt to them instead of vice versa. Likewise, as the device evolves, the team should be continuously evaluating other technologies that can be added to the product in development. The importance of adding other technologies is that many can aggregate data to further AT research and development. As someone once said to me, making something to track someone’s movements at home is useless unless it learns the movements and begins to predict slight changes that indicate future falls or sickness. Don’t invent with the intention of just tracking someone’s movements for better management, moreover innovate to learn from these movements so you can predict and PREVENT problems. That is innovation. That improves people’s lives.

Inventing Assistive Technologies Improves the Whole Community

Inventing assistive technologies starts with identifying a challenge in the disability community, discussing this challenge with everyone involved (especially those affected and those caring for the affected), beginning to form a solution through a user-centered design process, and thinking outside the box about what your technology can do to contribute to further treatments and innovations. Assistive Technologies can and will continue to improve people’s lives. These technologies will contribute to more people living integrated lives and prosperity for the communities that help facilitate innovations. We in the US need to ensure that every technology allows accessibility. Developing countries like China should ensure that the entrepreneurial community has access to information and resources beneficial for AT expansion, moreover, that accessibility continues to grow with all other technological advancements. Assistive technology entrepreneurs have the ability to change the lives for everyone because infrastructures that utilize AT is beneficial for integrating all members of a community.

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