Elizabeth Warren Has A Plan To Make Technology Work For People With Disabilities -- Not Against Them

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren greets supporters before the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall (AP)

Citing the hard-fought victories and tireless dedication of disability activists like Judith Heumann and Joyce Ardell Jackson, Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday unveiled an exhaustive plan to support the equal opportunity and self-determination of Americans with disabilities—pledging to ensure that advancements in technology will be used to improve their lives, rather than discriminate against them.

Part of Warren’s 2020 presidential platform, the 16-page plan, titled “Protecting the Rights and Equality of People with Disabilities,” aims to fulfil the promise, Warren said, of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1990 law, which aimed to eliminate discrimination by requiring employers and public entities to offer reasonable accommodations to those with disabilities, among other measures.

A core pillar of the plan is ensuring that technology advances in a way that promotes independent living and accessibility.

According to the World Health Organisation, around 2.2 billion people globally have some form of vision impairment or blindness. The WHO estimates that by 2050, over 900 million people will have some type of disabling hearing loss. In the United States, nearly 13 per cent of people have a disability, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys.

Technology has in many ways improved the lives of people with disabilities, but it can also be isolating and exclusionary, particularly when accessibility is an afterthought of designers and engineers. In 2017, Vint Cerf, who’s recognised as one of the “fathers of the internet” and is himself hearing-impaired, sharply criticised as “almost criminal” programmers who’ve failed to consider people who experience hearing, visual, and motor problems.

“It’s a crime that the most versatile device on the planet, the computer, has not adapted well to people who need help, who need assistive technology,” Cerf told CNET at the time.

Warren’s plan—which also addresses needs like affordable health care and economic self-sufficiency and would open new offices aimed at protecting disability rights at the U.S. State Department and elsewhere—calls for a reduction in the cost of assistive technologies. A specific method of enforcement mentioned by the plan is using the 1980 Bayh–Dole Act to effectively ignore the exclusivity of patents on assistive technologies when companies fail to make products affordable.

“If companies that used government funding to develop their products are unwilling or unable to offer key assistive technologies at reasonable prices, my administration will use its authority under the Bayh-Dole Act to licence patented innovations to companies that will ensure that technologies are available to the public on reasonable terms,” Warren said.

Warren, a liberal candidate who’s led the call to “break up Big Tech” and plans to pay for many of her campaign promises by implementing a new tax on the wealthiest Americans, reintroduced in the Senate last month the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM HIGH) Act, which is intended to help students with disabilities get the same access to educational materials and technologies as students who do not have disabilities.

“Despite strong anti-discrimination laws, students with disabilities still face discriminatory policies and practices that disproportionately impact them,” Warren said.

In addition to ensuring “full accessibility” to federal agency websites and other technologies, Warren adds that she plans to implement an $US85 ($121) billion federal grant program to expand broadband access across the country and will work to pass the Digital Equities Act, which among other goals seeks to fund projects that will improve the online accessibility of social services.

“The rapid pace of technological advancement has brought many positive changes for people with disabilities, improving their health, safety, and ability to interact with the world,” Warren said. “But technology also poses risks when it is used in ways that discriminate against individuals with disabilities or exclude them from an increasingly digital world.”

Added Warren: “People with disabilities are still fighting for economic security, equal opportunity, and inclusion—and they are not fighting alone.”

With the first primary contests now only a month away, Warren remains a top contender for the Democratic ticket, ranking only slightly behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders in the latest polls.

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