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Evolving Technology May Mean Less Freedom For People With Disabilities

As a person with a disability, I consider technology an incredible gift. It has opened up the world to me. Like Hugh Herr, the biophysicist who specializes in robotics, says, "Remove technology and I am imprisoned. All I can do is crawl. But with it I am free." Free.
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It seems like every day I read another article about how bad technology -- and particularly social media -- is for us.

Social media has been blamed for ruining creativity, encouraging narcissistic tendencies, inhibiting real-life relationships and negatively affecting mental health. These articles often encourage us to unplug and instead spend time enjoying solitude, solidifying real-life relationships and just enjoying life.

I get it. I do. I see the online bullying and shaming. I (sometimes) read the horribly racist/homophobic/misogynist and just plain rude comments on news stories. I've been known to check Facebook at inappropriate times. (Hey, when Corey Hart posts, I'm there, baby.)

But as a person with a disability, I consider technology an incredible gift. It has opened up the world to me. Like Hugh Herr, the biophysicist who specializes in robotics, says, "Remove technology and I am imprisoned. All I can do is crawl. But with it I am free."


I have a hearing disability. My diagnosis is profound hearing loss. I identify as "hard of hearing" (HOH) but I could also identify as "oral deaf." My hearing is pretty bad, but I don't know sign language and I am not part of the deaf community.

I rely on lip reading to communicate. I think I'm pretty good at it, but it's not easy. It's estimated that only about 30 per cent of speech can be interpreted by lip reading. The rest of it is guesswork, and it's made more difficult by things like poor lighting, visual distractions, hand gestures, conflicting body language and accents.

I fill in the blanks, sorting through all the possible puzzle pieces and inserting the most likely ones. It's mentally draining, exhausting and not terribly accurate. Plus, it has etched deep frown lines into my brow, as I have been frowning in concentration for much of my life.

Because of my disability, I can't use a regular telephone. I use a TTY, which is a text telephone. If I need to call someone -- and, yes, in this day and age, I still need to call places, like my doctor's office -- I dial the relay service. The operator there places the call for me. I type my side of the conversation, and she reads it out loud to the person I am calling.

That person, in turn, dictates their part of the conversation to the operator, who types it out for me. It's cumbersome. It's anything but private. And often, the transcription quality is poor, and I'm left floundering.

But online, where text-based communication rules, I'm on an even footing with everyone else. I understand everything. With technology, I am free. I'm equal. I'm not disabled.

I remember my awe when I saw a RIM 850 wireless pager for the first time. That would have been around 1999 or 2000. It belonged to another HOH person I knew. His wife had a sister device and they sent text messages back and forth. The possibilities inherent in such a device amazed me.

And then, in the early aughts, I joined an online message board and started making online friends. And here was the thing: after a lifetime of either "outing" myself by explaining my difference and asking for help or secluding myself because communicating took too much effort, when I was online, no one even needed to know I was HOH.

At first I reveled in that freedom and in being able to pass as an able-bodied person. But over the years, I've become more vocal about disability rights and more comfortable with asserting my needs. My HOH voice has value, and I'm not shy about sharing my story.

Honestly, the future of technology scares me a little bit. I see a movement towards more audio-based communication online. Video is becoming more prevalent on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Short, personal videos very rarely include closed captions, and indeed most of the videos on YouTube remain uncaptioned and are inaccessible to people with hearing disabilities.

And now Facebook provides a platform for both video and voice chat. Are we moving away from text-based communication? Is the technology that makes me non-disabled disintegrating?

I don't know. Still, I have to agree with those like Alan Campbell who consider the evolution of technology -- and the ways it allows us to communicate -- exciting.

It's my hope that if we are moving towards audio-based communication online, that other technology will step up and help me maintain my freedom in interacting with others. One such piece of technology that has me very excited is Ava, basically a real-time captioning app that can be used in all types of situations. In a recent Facebook post, the app developers even hinted that Ava may one day be capable of transcribing sung lyrics.

And, suddenly, these song lyrics take on a whole new meaning: "Baby, you can fly on your own. Just spread your wings and dream of tomorrow."

"HOH Oh!" pieces by Jacki Andre explore living life with a disability, and especially issues related to being hard of hearing (HOH).

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