Beam Us Up, Scottie: The Future is Here

An iPad next to an iPhone against a marble background“Alexa, desk light on.”

The bedside lamp clicks on and illuminates my room in a warm glow. So begins my day as a disabled woman assisted by smart tech. From the moment I wake up, technology makes daily tasks easier for me and my caretakers.

I’m old enough to remember when cell phones were huge, gray blocks with a long antenna. When I was a kid, the internet was not a staple in homes or in public spaces. Controlling the lights in my room with only my voice, and communicating with people via voice-to-text and FaceTime was something I thought could only happen on Star Trek.

Alexa is Amazon’s version of Siri, a voice-activated digital assistant that can link with smart devices like light switches and other electronic items. Alexa is also paired to my phone, and I can easily turn lights on and off either by saying a command aloud or tapping the iPhone screen. I also use Alexa to stream music, read the latest news, make phone calls, order pizza (if I’m so inclined), and turn on my space heater. There are many other tasks she can perform that I haven’t tried out yet — Amazon is constantly adding new features.

Alexa’s formal name is the Amazon Dot, and Google has released a similar device called Google Home Mini. The Dot is an Amazon product and is extremely tied in with Amazon and all its services, and the Mini is tied into Google.

The advance smart home technologies highlighted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) made Star Trek seem like a reality show. From refrigerators with large touch screens that tell you if you’re running low on milk to voice-controlled showers and bathtubs, CES 2018 showed us devices that could greatly benefit disabled individuals and their caretakers.

Someone with chronic pain won’t have to move as much to reach faucets or switches. Voice reminders and automated grocery lists can help those with memory loss. Mentally ill folks can activate calming music or order food without using up many figurative spoons. Smart tech can radically change the lives of disabled people, and the impact can be great.

You may have noticed my use of the word “can” in the previous sentence. I say it “can radically change,” rather than it does or it will, because these smart devices are usually a financial impossibility for disabled folks living on Social Security (SSI) wages. I would even say the smart refrigerator, for instance, is out-of-reach for most middle-class families. Amazon’s Echo is on the affordable end, but you then have to purchase smart plugs to get the most out of its accessibility features. I’m guessing costs related to the Google Mini are similar.

I worry that, as technology advances, the financial disparity when it comes to disabled people will leave them unable to keep up. Accessibility also means affordability. So often we can’t access the tools to improve our lives because they are behind a paywall.

What’s the solution? It’s complex. It involves looking at the very foundation of our sociopolitical system. But I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen if we are to see this tech available to all, especially those who are disabled.

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