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Discussing the opportunities and challenges of smart city accessibility

Monday, March 18, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

At a high-minded talk about the impacts of smart city technology speeding ahead without including input from disabled communities, a stark example from the city of Toronto hammered the point home during last week’s South by Southwest conference.

The anecdote came from Megan Lawrence, Microsoft’s accessibility evangelist, who recounted the incidence of autonomous vehicles in Toronto running into people in wheelchairs because the cars weren’t programmed to recognize a wheelchair-bound person as a pedestrian. That problem could have been avoided, she said, if the city and car providers had made inclusivity a priority from the beginning.

“It feels like every city is running toward this thing called ‘smart,’ but what does that mean?” she said. “What is the data that needs to be included as we run toward this thing called smart to make sure that we’re inclusive? That’s an open question and I don’t think anybody here has the total answer of what that looks like. But I want to plant that seed of what it means to be not just a successful smart city but an accessible smart city.”

The March 8 session titled “Strategies to Achieve Smart and Accessible Cities” looked at the individual touch points where disability and the evolution of smart city technology intersect, and the larger world effects of groups being left behind by lack of access to smart devices and services.

Statistics put the changing world in full view, with Lawrence pointing out that by some measures one in five people have a disability and globally only one in 10 have access to information technology they can use.

Enrique de la Madrid, vice president of Tecnológico de Monterrey, said the overall aging of the world population due to longer life spans means aging-related disabilities will become commonplace, putting even more importance on the physical and digital makeup of cities being fully accessible. Doing otherwise, he cautioned, brings the risk of social unrest from groups that have been left behind.

“Let’s accept that we have been growing in terms of there being an inclusion gap and that includes a lack of accessibility …  because of that there is a trend against technology, because not all the people feel they’re benefiting or being included,” he said. “There is a risk that if we do not find a way to include more people in this evolution, we might have even more of a backlash.”

De la Madrid pointed out that cities around the world will feel even more pressure to make accessibility a priority as they grow because more than half of the world’s population live in cities today. The trend toward urbanization is increasing and manual labor is decreasing in economic importance in favor of knowledge assets.

Karen Tamley, commissioner of Chicago’s office for people with disabilities, said even her city’s moves toward inclusion and accessibility have had some missteps stemming from technologies or services designed without input from the disabled community. The result, she said, is backtracking and making expensive fixes to hardware or departments that don’t deliver the level of service desired.

“Technology is changing so quickly that unless there is inclusion from the disability community as the end user,” she said, the resulting products may not be usable for people with disabilities.

“Through my lens I also look at technology and accessibility as a civil right … and now that’s not just the physical landscape but everything that goes into what we’ve done with a virtual city hall and how do we keep up with everything the city has to offer.”

Photo by SouthWestFL-Gazette [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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