Can We Create Social Sustainability Through Technology? Maybe Not…

Social sustainability is a complex topic which is constantly evolving. For the purposes of my TEDxUAlberta talk on March 10 and this blog post, social sustainability will look specifically at ableism.


But First, A Story…

I have a friend named Rhonda, and she’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had. She gives me amazing life advice, calls to check up on me, and is always down for a glass of wine. She’s a cat-lover, a volunteer, and a mother. Rhonda and I have a lot in common, but Rhonda also has several impediments to her physical and cognitive ability.

I’d like to think that we’re doing lots to help people like Rhonda. We’ve created spoons that don’t spill, thermostats that learn what temperature we like, and even right here in Edmonton, a U of A researcher, MacNeil Keri, is building inexpensive prosthetic limb sensors. Maybe one day disabilities will be assisted through technology, as we add ability back into the lives of folks who require it.

It’s a nice thought that we would create all these marvelous inventions for the sole purpose of creating equality. Not everyone has the ability to push the vacuum or press the buttons on their phone, so automation, artificial intelligence, and voice-assisted input close the ability gap. Right?

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Designing for Ableism

Let’s begin by defining a key term within the context of this post:

Ableism is the discrimination of individuals based on ability.

For a variety of reasons, product, architectural, and organizational design is severely lacking in the consideration of ability. With a specific benchmark of ability being considered ‘normal’, design has traditionally been for the masses, with later adaptations for people of ‘lesser’ abilities. This has been called design for Accessibility and includes all manner of handicap parking stalls, wheelchair-height desks at the front of the class, or computer screen readers for folks who can’t see.

Unfortunately, the problem with accessibility is it’s an afterthought. The parking lot was built for normal-sized vehicles, most of the desks were built for use with the usual chairs, and your web developer probably didn’t consider the use of screen readers when designing your website. (Fun fact, C.I.A. instead of CIA will help screen readers pronounce your abbreviations correctly!)

Thankfully, Ron Mace’s practise of Universal Design, the design of products and spaces to be used by the greatest extent of people possible and all potential people, is gaining traction. He also suggests the use of frameworks which incorporate folks of all abilities when considering innovation in science—a field where respect for all abilities sees minimal consideration.

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We live in what Italian design theorist Maurizio Morgantini would call the Third technological generation.

The first generation was the generation of prostheses of limbs: tools to do the jobs of our hands and feet. The second generation is the prostheses of our senses: telephones, televisions, and machines which reproduce images and sounds. Ours is the Third Generation, the prostheses of the mind, where our ability to reduce the physical requirements of intelligence to nothingness (read: smartphones!) will eventually lead us to our choice of consumption and our choice of utopia.

What does this mean for us living now? We see what we want; the digital age has brought an abundance of creation tools and global content for us to consume. This is also the age of AI where we decide what we want to process and what the machine processes. And finally, augmented reality is allowing us to experience what we want on demand. In many ways, our generation is creating the technology of choice.

Choice is at the center of what it means to be a valued citizen: the choice to work, to consume, to present ourselves a particular way. But the same choice doesn’t exist for everyone, and people with disabilities have less choice than many of us. The visual stigmatization of disabilities removes fundamental choice from the lives of 190 Million people globally who experience significant disabilities, and unfortunately for people like Rhonda—choice hasn’t always been an option.

What You Can Do About It

Number one: stop using the word disability to describe people. We all have complex psychological, physical, social, and spiritual needs, and all have varying ability in each of these categories. People have different abilities just like people have different races, genders, and ages. The more we use this terminology, the more opportunity for research and social change is created.

And number two: don’t accommodate, don’t make accessible, but design for all abilities. Maybe you aren’t building the next digital device to be reviewed on techradar, but that doesn’t mean that organizational processes, interior spaces, or communication channels can’t be designed for everyone who has the potential to use them. This practise promotes choice for all people.

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Want to Learn More?

Check out TEDxUAlberta on March 10, 2019 at the ATB Arts Barns for this topic and many others related to our integration of technology and innovation to build a better world.

Tickets are on sale Feb. 25, and further information can be seen at



Comics courtesy of Ben Montero. He is a fantastic artist, musician, and (in my opinion) advocate for people of all abilities through his thoughtful illustrations. Definitely check him out at



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