Can tech give a voice to the voiceless?

Meryl Alper explores how assistive technologies that claim to empower people can sometimes reinforce inequality.
Assistive technologies like Proloquo2Go are designed to help people with disabilities communicate using mobile devices. (Adam Killick)

Technology is often touted as being the great equalizer. Think, for example, of tech designed to help people with disabilities communicate.

Assistive technologies are hailed as a way to "give voice to the voiceless." But what exactly do we mean by giving voice?

The book explores how that concept of 'giving voice' can be problematic in some ways, because it doesn't capture the nuances and complications of assistive technology use.

"There's this idea that technology can be a fix, and that disability means something is broken." Meryl says. 

For her research, Meryl looked at how children with developmental disabilities used tablets equipped with apps to help them communicate. Those apps convert icons and text into synthetic speech.

She spent time with those children and their families to find out how they used that assistive technology.

What she found is that a talking tablet does not in itself give people a voice. Meryl discovered that "the messy parts of technology use" often get in the way. 

Many of the families she spent time with for her research viewed the  technology with hope, but that hope was tempered by the support they were getting to help use that technology.

For example, the limit in the range of synthetic voices representing different ethnic backgrounds, or the lack of emotion in those voices sometimes interfered with how enthusiastic children were about using the apps.

Meryl says her work demonstrates why people with disabilities need to be more involved in the development of assistive technology.

That involvement would "truly centre the voices of people with disabilities in the conversations about them."   

You may also like this related Spark story on assistive technologies by contributor Michelle Macklem.