Adapted Ability

Two years ago, I wrote my Masters thesis entitled “Augmented Ability, Integrated Identity: Understanding Sapienism, Adaptive Technology, and the Construction of Disability,” which compares the language used to describe disability with the language that anti-technologists, like the Luddites, use to talk about technology. What I found was a startling similarity, specifically that both depended on words describing or insinuating losing “control” or “autonomy” when relying on technology. Ultimately, I postulated that perhaps our lack of comfort with disability actually stems from our inherent distrust of technology: that we feel uneasy about the equipment rather than the person who uses it. Editors note, yes I did make up the word “Sapienism.” Whatever, I’m an academic…it’s my job to make up words. If you don’t like it, you better hope I don’t make up a new word to call you because it will be fiercetastic…ferociotical…beastimal…badtastic?

Anyway, that was two years ago and, as we all know, times they be a changin’. I feel our society is slowly getting over our collective distrust of gadgets, especially younger people, when it comes to social technology, like smart phones, that have become an essential tool in our day-to-day private and public lives. Whether this is a good or bad thing for society remains to be seen, but one definite positive to our unrelenting demand for smaller, faster and cheaper smart phones is the incredible accessibility opportunity these portable processors provide. A recently released report by Mobile Future entitled “Mobile Ability: The Transformational Impact of Wireless Innovation for People with Disabilities,” explains how, through mobile technology, individuals with visual and auditory limitations are being “liberated” through apps that will convert text to speech and provide turn-by-turn GPS navigation, meaning the “guide dog” is about to go the way of the dodo. This bodes poorly for my current service dog Kurzweil, as it looks like his lack of 3G connectivity could be a huge limitation going forward. Having said that, I think he’s safe until the iPhone comes with a furry case.


I think what’s truly great about this smart phone technology for individuals with disabilities is that it allows us to use consumer products that are both universally used and competitively priced (I’m looking at you Shoppers Home Healthcare…). This means rather than using the “weird” wheelchair or the “strange” cane, we’re moving to a point in our society that accessibility is finally being incorporated into mainstream products rather than being supplied only as a specialty order. This is the true spirit of inclusive design that we should all be striving for!

PS: If I ever launch a rap career, “Strange Cane” is going to be my first break-out jam. Ya huuuurd.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.

3 replies on “Adapted Ability”

I have always found your thoughts on accessibility to be so enlightening =) In working in schools with children with a wide range of disabilities, its so awesome to see that while I complain about technology and the massive chunk of my paycheque it seems to get, it really is making accessibility and learning possible where it never was before. Kudos Jeff and hope all is well!

We sound very similar, I also received my Masters in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in 2007. I completed my scholarly paper on Education, Employment and Assistive Technology for Individuals with Spinal Cord Injuries, Quality of Life….

I believe assistive technology can empower individuals with disabilities to compete fairly across the board. Keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your blog.