Beware your little brother (or the kid who is disabled)

by Edward Henkler on February 17, 2015

How many parents have warned an older sibling to be kind to their younger sibling as some day they may be bigger, stronger, and smarter. The same caution may apply to folks who are disabled. Technology is bringing us to the cusp of a major shift in how people with disabilities perform. Thinking back to the bionic man TV show, it’s not difficult to envision a world in which the apps and prostheses used by people with disabilities will outperform the people a good friend of mine calls TABs (temporarily-abled bodies). At that point, the enabling technology may become a designer choice. You may remember an earlier post which mentioned a Smithsonian article about Hugh Herr. He is the inventor of amazingly sophisticated prosthetics that are fundamentally changing the nature of what amputees can do.

I am involved with two young companies that may be part of changing this paradigm. AME Communicate intends to make technology and the world more accessible to individuals who are disabled. They are developing a suite of smartphone apps which will help someone with disabilities. Their initial focus is on individuals who are visually- or hearing-impaired. AME (Accessibility Made Easy) Sight will help someone who is visually-impaired “see” semantic information such as signage which was previously inaccessible. AME Hear will facilitate communication between someone who is profoundly deaf and someone who doesn’t speak sign language.

The second company is COSY (Cognitive Operational Systems). They are developing smartphone apps based on robotic technology. The COSY apps will make indoor environments as accessible as GPS has made external environments. Someone who is blind will now be able to receive step-by-step directions in any indoor environment. They will also receive contextual information about their environment, including signage, temporary hazards, etc. This technology will also benefit individuals with certain intellectual disabilities.

Disabled + enabling tech = superhero

Disabled to superhero through enabling technology


None of these technologies will yield a superhero but let’s think through the near future. As the technology becomes more capable, might infrared and other wavelengths which are outside the visible spectrum become accessible to someone who is blind? Similarly, as Hugh Herr’s prostheses become more capable will amputees be outperforming top athletes?

Right now people who are disabled are still marginalized and someone who is normally-abled can readily outperform them. In 5-10 years I believe that paradigm will be flipped and we better hope they treat us better than we have treated them for a very long time.

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