Those We’re Leaving Behind

Disclaimer: The statements in this post are not generalizations; many people with intellectual disabilities are still able to perform highly at technologically based jobs. Additionally, this post is not intended to discount the numerous intellectual abilities that people with intellectual disabilities do have.

This past weekend, I got a text on my phone from a random number. As everyone does when they receive a text from an unknown number, I had a bit of excitement and curiosity. As I opened the text on my phone, I saw a familiar message, and couldn’t help but smile. “Hey Linds, it’s Peyton”, it read. My younger brother, Peyton, who I had become accustomed to communicating with through Facebook Messenger after he got his first Facebook account a few months ago, had just sent me a text on his first cell phone. For most people, texting their siblings is a normal, daily occurrence, but for me, and for Peyton, this was a major milestone. Peyton is 18 years old, turning 19 in July, and has an intellectual disability called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. For the purpose of this article, an intellectual disability (ID), will refer to a disability characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior that become apparent before the age of 18 and are life-lasting. More specifically, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome is a rather unknown developmental disorder that affects approximately 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 30,000 newborns a year. This disorder is characterized by short stature, intellectual disabilities, physical abnormalities, distinct facial features, and behavioral conditions. While Peyton’s case is mild, cases of the disorder can be severe, causing significant physical disabilities and shortened life span. Because of his condition, Peyton is increasingly reliant on care and support from family and teachers and will be for the rest of his life.

Recently, Peyton started working at a pool club near our home, helping with basic tasks such as kitchen work and food running. He also does similar tasks at a restaurant near our home as part of a special education program through his school. He’s hardworking, patient, and diligent, and I hope (but highly doubt) that I will enjoy going to work once I graduate as much as he does. Because of his work schedule, my parents found it necessary to give him a cell phone. This was a difficult, but necessary decision. While it is challenging for Peyton to navigate a cell phone more complexly, as well as recognize the responsibility behind owning such a device, it was necessary for him to be able to stay in contact with my parents when outside of the house. Those with intellectual disabilities often are disconnected to the scale of digitization that we experience on a daily basis because, while technological adaptation for those with intellectual disabilities is entirely possible, it requires a multitude of cognitive skills such as visual processing, auditory processing, selective attention, and logic and reasoning, all of which are of increased difficulty for an individual with an intellectual disability to develop. Because of this, like the elderly, those with intellectual disabilities are facing a significant technology gap and are often disregarded as digitization continues to rapidly grow.

For example, a study from Influence Central conducted in 2016 found that, on average, kids get their first smartphone at 10.3 years of age, a number that has likely decreased significantly over the past three years. Because of this, young children are being exposed to the responsibility and experience of owning a smartphone at earlier ages than ever before, significantly increasing their adaptability to and awareness of tech and digital innovation. However, Peyton does not fall behind his peers only in the sense of smartphone ownership. Not only are children owning smartphones at a young age, they are also owning tablets, personal computers, and video game consoles, and spending ample amount of time on them. The digitization of our society results in increasing social and occupational isolation of those with intellectual disabilities because advanced understanding of tech is developed and enhanced over the early years of their peers’ childhoods.

While the digital competency of current adolescents provides a distinct advantage in the professional world, as jobs are becoming increasingly automated and tech focused, the careers that Peyton, and others with intellectual disabilities rely on are threatened. An article from McKinsey discussing digitization and automation states that humanoid robots such as Honda’s ASIMO, one of the world’s most advanced humanoids, are “stirring existential anxieties about the future of human labor itself and the potential for major job dislocations by automation based on artificial intelligence”. The jobs referred to in this article, as well as countless articles discussing this risk of automation, largely relate to clerical and administrative work, jobs that are necessary for people like Peyton to make a living. Because of the technology gap previously mentioned, those with intellectual disabilities are often ill-prepared to perform highly at even routine jobs due to the increasing utilization of technology. However, now the existence of these routine jobs is even threatened. Additionally, aside from career opportunities, the increasing prevalence of technology in our everyday lives, such as self-checkout in a grocery store and mobile ordering, is often something that we adapt to subconsciously, taking for granted the digital competency that we have been developing from a young age.

Peyton’s story is not simply anecdotal. According to the Special Olympics, 6.5 million people in the United States and 1-3% of the global population have an intellectual disability. While digital innovation is providing ease and simplicity in many factors of our lives, the technology gap it creates is making jobs that those with intellectual disabilities rely on more difficult to navigate or obsolete. As a result, those will intellectual disabilities are facing social exclusion, something that can only be combated by actively creating opportunity, rather than destroying it. To facilitate this, tech giants, such as Apple and Google, should consider developing assistants within their devices to guide users through their experience, better teaching them the various functionalities of the device and their potential usage. Widespread usage of assistive technologies such as screen readers, voice recognition, switch devices, and reading assistants all make technology more approachable and adaptable for those with disabilities. Additionally, education systems should encourage the use of basic technology from a young age, despite intellectual ability, to better prepare for technological adeptness in adulthood. Furthering these efforts will better expose those with intellectual disabilities to technology and make them more advanced users, therefore becoming better prepared for the future use of technology in their respective career spaces. Finally, employers should provide environments that facilitate the participation of those with intellectual disabilities, and by doing so, broaden our consideration of the people we begin to leave behind as we eliminate jobs and turn towards a world of automation.


9 comments

  1. Thank you for touching and sharing a personal story connected to the digital era. It was a nice way to weave in educational tools on a cell phone for the purpose of intellectual disabilities. A lot of people are unaware of the process and aches/pains most parents and siblings go through when dealing with disabilities. I know you mentioned that Apple and Google should develop technologies to facilitate the learning curve at work for those with these types of disabilities – however, I am aware that Microsoft is in the process/has begun to roll out AI technologies to support this market. You can see this here – https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2018/05/07/using-ai-to-empower-people-with-disabilities/

  2. Wow, what a great and personal story. Thank you for sharing. There’s also the other side of the coin that it’s opening jobs up for people with other types of disabilities (i.e. people on the autism spectrum) that may have been previously shut out of traditional work environments.

  3. Great post! While it is obviously highlights the privilege many of us have when it comes to adaptability to our abilities to quickly adapt to new technologies, it also represents a huge business opportunity for tech companies. 6.5 million people is a huge market! I see a huge opportunity (which Microsoft may be diving into as mentioned above) for a need to be met. In addition, by making technologies that we consider commonplace adaptable to those with intellectual disabilities, we can increase their productivity and thus the overall productivity of our economy as a whole – like you said, many, including your brother, are very enthusiastic about going to work everyday.

  4. Thank you for sharing and allowing us to learn about such an important topic from a more personal perspective. This blog post reminds me a lot about a blog post from another classmate earlier this semester, where she wrote about how prison inmates are also part of a growing population that’s getting left behind. I agree with you completely that we should not only broaden our consideration, but also make tangible steps in addressing this issue. Education is a great first step. I know that a lot of schools are beginning to offer coding classes in lieu of language classes as early as from elementary school. Similarly, basic technology classes should be implemented as a core, required class to ensure that all kids are given the same opportunities to learn and adapt.

  5. Thank you for sharing such a personal story! I agree with you completely that large tech companies should be developing assistants in their devices to help supplement the usage by people with learning disabilities. My brother has down syndrome and at an early age, all we had in the house was a Gameboy and a very slow laptop, which he was able to use. Though his condition has worsened and no longer can use technology, I wholeheartedly agree that institutions should introduce technology at an early age to promote familiarity and comfort. In this digital age, it makes it so much easier for those with some sort of disability to fall behind if not given the right opportunities to learn and grow their own knowledge of technology use, such as cell phones, laptops, and any other smart devices. These are crucial developments that need to take place at an early age so that we can improve their comfortability and knowledge.

  6. Lindsay, thank you for sharing something so personal with us. This is such an important topic, and one that I unfortunately knew little about prior to reading your post. Conversations about technology access and technology illiteracy are often focused on underprivileged communities, and leave out the disabled community. It would be great to see technology incorporated more in our education system, particularly for disabled students, and to see technology companies making a serious effort to come out with products to serve this community.

  7. Awesome post, it was really nice to hear such a personal and touching story. I couldn’t agree more that our education system should implement programs at a young age to make sure no one is left behind in digital competency. It appears this could be an excellent auxiliary market for tech giants or startups to focus on, with a large social benefit as well. It would be interesting to see the products which could be developed for these purposes.

  8. Love your blog post! I completely agree that tech giants have the resources and should develop assistants within their devices. On campus, I run a committee for Campus School, a school for students with severe disabilities, and have seen first hand how influential the “eagle eyes” program has been. Eagle eyes is a program that Professor James Gips had created, where the students control the mouse with their eyes. The eye movement allows the students to use interactive online programs, because before they didn’t have motor skills to control a mouse with their hands. The students of the campus school are on the other end of the spectrum with regard to intellectual disabilities, but technology is a tool that is critical for communication for everyone whether that be through phones or through switches. You highlighted this point when talking about Peyton’s work schedule and how he communicates with both you and your parents.

  9. This was one of the best, most thoughtful posts I’ve read all semester, and I really enjoyed the personal touch! As an able-bodied college student with no intellectual disabilities, this isn’t something I often think about. I definitely take my privilege for granted in this regard. I’m glad your blog post brought it to my attention, because I’m not sure if I have ever critically considered how the evolution of technology is affecting those with disabilities. As you touched on, there is a ton of room for improvement to ensure we don’t leave anyone behind in this digital revolution. At the same time, it’s fascinating to see how technology can aid people with disabilities. One application of this that comes to mind is the late Professor Gips’ “Eagle Eyes” program that Allie previously mentioned. It’s amazing to see how our understanding of disabilities changes with the technology that enables those with disabilities to express themselves more fully.

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