Disability and Engineering

I’ve had several ideas lately for my next post, all of them somewhat more delicate topics than my usual fare.  I’m still planning on the post I was going to do – that of robots and sex – but first something that’s been rattling around in my brain since I did my piece referencing the starship delivery crawler that blocked a woman in a wheelchair from getting up onto the curb.  Starship has since released a statement pointing out that Ms. Ackerman was able to get past the robot, though as she replied, the point still stands that it impeded her progress and that others may not be so able as she was to work her way around it.

My conversations with people on the Twitter thread that this originated on got me to thinking along lines that are always dangerous for people like me.  Literal minded, technocratic-leaning engineers who are about as disabled as Arthur Dent and representative of little or no part of the population who is under served.  I got to thinking, “How does one even go about fixing this problem?”  Fixing, as in making it so that issues like this don’t occur again.

There are, after all, dozens of labs and projects working on accessibility in robotics alone.  Since many disabilities are invisible, it’s difficult to infer even from pictures of the lab staff how many of these projects have engineers with disabilities working on them.  Certainly, there are disabled people testing the robots and autonomous systems in order to improve their function.  The thing is that what these projects all have in common is that they are for disabled people rather than for everyone including people with disabilities.

There are foundations which help with this.  The best way to foster inclusivity in design is to have an inclusive design process where the designers represent a wide array of people who might come in contact with the system.  According to the CDC, over a quarter of US citizens are disabled.  What their statistics also show is that disability is a spectrum, and even the CDC graphic simplifies this greatly.  Each of those categories is a spectrum, which further breaks things down into smaller and more specific types and severities.

This is important because, to make a crass numeric argument, some disabilities make it difficult in greater quantities for the person to become an engineer, and they all create a bar of some kind.  10% of undergraduate STEM degrees are awarded to people with disabilities, 6% graduate of any kind, and 2% PhD.  This means that most labs are extremely unlikely to include any kind of disabled postdoc or faculty, and startups aren’t faring much better.  After all, the average startup has only 5 employees, which means that – with the greatest regret from the founder, no doubt – there’s a strong chance that they will see hiring a disabled engineer as expensive, and as long as they’re below 15 employees, they’ll use the excuse that the ADA doesn’t apply to them.

It also doesn’t help that almost half of all disabled people are over the age of 40 (again, let me stress that I’m using US stats because they’re available and I’m a US Citizen.  Your mileage may vary in other countries).  This matters because the average age of the founder of a tech startup is 45.  They tend to attract recent graduates who are more risk tolerant.  That’s still 50% of disabled Americans, but that’s 50% of somewhere between 2 and 10% of all engineers, depending on what level of education the startup needs.  Startups also skew towards graduates, so let’s say 5% of 50%, or 2.5% of engineers are in the startup range and have a disability.  Factoring in the likelihood that this startup is in a trendy post-industrial wasteland building – the sort of big concrete and steel cube that was built before modern accessibility concerns – and there’s a huge barrier to entry.  Not to mention the aforesaid spectrum.

So, let’s take it as read that right now there’s no way to get a representative sample of disabled engineers on a design team.  And lest anyone point this out, I’m aware that they’re not the only people who are unlikely to be represented on a design team.  What’s the solution?  In general, the only one that I can think of is the obvious – the solution given to any under-representation – “hire and train more disabled engineers.”  There are certainly foundations and a plethora of articles suggesting just that.  The other answer – the one that will “have to suffice” until we get more people trained – is mindfulness and inclusivity using methods like collaborative design, a process which has shown outstanding results in designing for neighborhoods.  This, of course, puts the onus on the disabled community to come and explain their needs, but to be fair the process does that to everyone. It’s just that with fewer disabled people and so many types of disability, someone may be the only person in their neighborhood who can give their point of view accurately, and not everyone has the time to become a full-time advocate to help tech companies do the right thing in the community.

As I said above, I’m not representative at all.  I’m sure I’ve missed plenty and that I may even look and sound like yet another engineer who needs the situation explained.  I’m sure it’s tiring to have to keep educating people.  Speaking of education, maybe the whole issue needs to be flipped.  In addition to more disabled people being educated in engineering, more engineers need to be educated in disability.  In mine, for example, accessibility was treated like a specific application rather than a pervasive and constant design element.  We designed to help people specifically with disabilities instead of designing to help everyone.

I’m reminded of a competition we had where engineering and business students had to work together to pitch to a mock-entrepreneurship panel made up of business professors.  The topic was to design something to help the elderly.  See how we’re already segmenting?  Not help everyone including, just help them.  There’s the classes we help specifically (disabilities, elderly, youth, autistic, etc) and everyone else.  Never the twain shall meet or else things get complicated.

It also amazes me sometimes when a team goes into the meeting and the lead says, “we need ideas about how we can help X person” and they get all surprised when I reply, “have you tried asking them how we can help?”

This was more rambling than I usually do, but I expected it.  I’m venturing into deep waters without much awareness of where I’m going.  Which is probably why so many engineers feel lost at sea when they think about this topic.  And yes, I’m keenly aware and somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t try – you know – just asking someone in the community for help with this article.  But then again, would I be properly representing a clueless engineering team if I did something as sensible as that?

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