Access Ability at the San Diego Museum of Man

Access Ability at the San Diego Museum of Man

Access Ability at the San Diego Museum of Man

I’m fortunate this week to be attending the CSUN event in San Diego, which is the largest AT related conference in the world with over 5000 professionals in the field with a great focus on e-Accessibility and the needs of the blind. It’s a great location to meet with people in the field, exchange ideas and share resources, but the truth is it has a limited impact on people outside of the world of access to technology. But whilst here I took an opportunity to visit the San Diego Museum of Man, which was addressing very similar issues, but in a very different way.

Access Ability is a public exhibition which is seeking to raise awareness of “many ways to do the same thing” It is targeted upon children and families and is loosely divided into two types of activity. The first part offers people the chance to use some of the technologies that help people with a disability, you can print your name in Braille, try out a high tech sports wheelchair in race simulation, try to navigate a maze with a white cane and a mask and a range of tools such as communications aids. The kids I saw were fascinated by some of the items on display, especially trying to get up a ramp in a wheelchair and through closed door, you could see how they began to understand how much difference the slope on a ramp makes, and how an automatic door opener makes it possible to get into a room which otherwise was almost impossible.

The second area asked the visitors to think about different ways to do the same thing. There were a range of stories by young people about what they used to help them do the same thing as everyone else, and some fun things to try. One exhibit had different door handles and asked people to think about which were easiest to manipulate, another showed adapted cooking utensils whilst a third showed how the same information could be made available in different formats to help young people to learn.

Whilst it was designed to be interactive and fun, the exhibition was hugely informative and helped children shape ideas and attitudes towards design for all which will be of great value to  people with a disability in the future.

If this exhibit challenged young minds, elsewhere in the museum, issues around disability were also being raised. Open questions were asked in the future of mankind section about the ethical issues around gene therapy for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, and a debate about how far would people like to see technology enhancing human abilities, both for the whole population and for people with a disability specifically. For instance the use of artificial hips and cochlear implants is now widely accepted, but are we happy with the idea of robotic eyes for the blind, or though controlled prosthetic limbs? Flicking through some of the thoughts people had, its clear that not everyone  approved, including some people with a disability who feared a culture of enforced surgery, and being blamed for being disabled if they weren’t prepared to undergo the required procedures.

Where is the boundary for Assistive Technology in a Modern Age?

I left the museum (which was highly accessible in itself) with many questions. I would have loved to have seen a historical perspective on aids for people with a disability included, something which gave a sense of the pace of progress, but I also wondered if such an exhibition would be valuable and have an impact in Doha, what are your thoughts?