At the San Francisco Bay Area Makeathon last year, Google.org convened technologists and designers for seventy-two hours to write code and design prototypes of technologies to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The charitable arm of the tech giant, which invests in tech entrepreneurs solving problems, focused its 2015 Google Impact Challenge on solutions for the one billion people living with a disability.
Benetech, a nonprofit technology company focused on technology for social good, received a 2015 Google.org seed grant to devise technology for a human rights information platform. Its programs extend from human rights to global literacy, including Bookshare, an online library of accessible books reaching 375,000 people with disabilities in over fifty countries.
Catherine Cheney, who covers the west coast global development community for Devex, recently spoke with Benetech president Betsy Beaumon about Benetech’s mission to leverage technology in order to develop solutions for people with unmet needs. Here are the highlights of the conversation:
You are known for coining the phrase “born accessible.” Can you expand on how global development professionals should account for people with disabilities in their work?
A lot of groups in the development space say, “Oh, but we’re trying to deal with this huge issue. We’ll worry about them later.” Well why? Given that the industry that we have to influence was really talking about “born digital,” I thought, well let’s leverage a term that they understand. So if you’re making it born digital, make it “born accessible.” It should literally be the exact same book and the exact same online test and the exact same online program that the kid with disabilities can use as well as the kid who doesn’t have any disabilities or special needs. Why not? And as more things go digital, even in the developing world in education, that’s possible. It’s possible today. And so we’re trying to drive things in that direction.
Not all development professionals see disability as a development issue. Why do you think this needs to change?
Disability and poverty are just way too closely aligned. One of the areas is education. So in a place like India, to this day they refer to somebody who’s blind as a mouth with no hands, because they’re assuming they can’t make a living, and they can’t educate this person. My call to action for the global development community is inclusion. Include people with disabilities explicitly. When the U.S. Agency for International Development does that and says we absolutely will pay attention to making sure that kids with disabilities are included in All Children Reading, then you get people like us who come up with really great solutions. If you don’t do that, it’s just an afterthought. I think sometimes they’re not included because sometimes it just sounds so hard. How do you possibly help a blind child in India? Well, actually, it’s quite possible. We work with a consortium of groups in India called the DAISY Forum of India – fifty organizations that serve people with visual impairments all over the country.
Benetech says it aims to serve humanity through technology. But you’ve also emphasized that technology is not a panacea. What more can other organizations do to leverage technology for global development?
You don’t want to throw technology at people. Whether it’s in the development space or accessibility space you have to involve the people who really need the technology to know what they want. That’s sometimes where global development can go wrong. If you never talk to the actual beneficiaries or involve them in the development directly, which is the best, then you’re going to be off base. There’s an unreality that tech will just train itself, sell itself, implement itself, be the panacea. If it’s not true in the middle of Silicon Valley, it’s definitely not true in Kenya. So we shouldn’t expect something to work in development that doesn’t work in the most advanced place on earth for technology.
Note: this article was written by Catherine Cheney and originally appeared with a video of the full interview on January 22, 2016 on Devex.com. Devex is the media platform for the global development community. A social enterprise, it connects and informs 700,000+ development, health, humanitarian, and sustainability professionals through news, business intelligence, and funding & career opportunities so you can do more good for more people.