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Glasses vs. Hearing Aids: The Gap Between Technology and Assistive Technology

By Wesley Fenlon

An argument that all technology is assistive, and that many medical technologies could benefit from an altered social perspective.

What separates a technology from an assistive technology? We use computers and smartphones every day to interact with others, make ourselves more knowledgeable and more productive. The wheel is instrumental in getting us, and our things, from one place to another. But assistive technologies usually fit into a narrower category: Crutches and wheelchairs and hearing aids, which assist the disabled. The Atlantic ran an interview on Tuesday with Sara Hendren, who runs the website Abler, challenging that notion.

Hendren argues that all technology is, in fact, assistive technology, which is something some scholars have argued in disability studies. Hendren's goal is to bring that point of view into the tech world.

What kind of technology is Google Glass?

" 'Assistive technologies' have largely taken their points of departure from medical aids, primarily because in industrialized cultures, people with atypical bodies and minds have been thought of as medical 'cases,' not as people with an expanded set of both capacities and needs," she says. "So a lot of the design attention to things like crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and the like have followed the material look and structure of hospital gear. And accordingly, designers and people working in tech have 'read' them as a branch of medical technologies and, usually, uninteresting."

Hendren points out there's a big acceptance/interest gap between technologies viewed as assistive, and technologies viewed as, more or less, normal. Glasses are a prime example. "Eyeglasses have moved culturally from being a medical aid to a fashion accessory," she says. "People who use them are getting 'assistance' in a very dependent way, but their cultural register has no stigma attached to it, the way that hearing aids still do."

The technology behind hearing aids may be advancing all the time, making them better and smaller, but they're still not viewed as normal in the same way that glasses are. There aren't fashion designers building thousands of varieties of attractive hearing aids, either.

Of course, there are plenty of explanations for glasses' mainstream acceptance. They've been around far longer than hearing aids, for example. But Hendren makes a good point about their design, and the segregated field of assistive technologies could likely benefit enormously from an influx of great technology designers.

That's what Hendren is hoping for. "What I’m interested in is seeing technologies that have thus far been labeled for 'special needs' get the kind of design attention that mainstream technologies do; I’m also interested in designers and technology developers seeing needs—interdependence—as a fundamentally human social state on a universal continuum."