How robots can help us adopt a more compassionate outlook on disability

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The Victorians in their embarrassment constructed massive out-of-sight asylums while coping with the otherness of illness, and their legacy of “them” and “us” continues up to this day. Technologies give us an alternate view, two hundred years later. The digital age is cracking boundaries, and what used to normal is being questioned now.

How if we were able to change the atmosphere and not the person? How if a virtual assistant has been able to support a visually disabled person shopping online? And what if a “buddy” robot might help a person with autism manage the complexities of working-politics? These are just a few of the questions that are being posed and need answers as the digital age challenges our regular expectations.

Has a confirmed history of treating people with developmental disabilities. You’ll also see massive Victorian buildings in towns and cities across Britain that were once places to “look after” disabled people, that is, exclude them from the community. Things got worse with an idealization of the perfect and denial of Darwin’s concept of natural diversity during the Nazi period.

Today we face common differences-versus-abnormalities problems. Current diagnostic methods probably do not help since they diagnose the individual and not the “system.” So, rather than being in pain, a child has troubling behaviour; the person with autism has a communication disorder, rather than not being understood.

Natural-born cyborgs

The digital environment, by comparison, is more about the devices. The human-computer interaction area is about how things work between humans and machines or robots. Philosopher Andy Clark believes that human beings have always been cyborgs of natural origin – that is, we have still used technology (in its broadest sense) to better ourselves.

The most glaring example is language itself. In the digital era, we will become genuinely digitally enhanced. How many of us Google have something to recall, rather than recall? How do you feel when there’s no wi-fi access? How much are we in favour of email, tweeting and Facebook via face-to-face conversations? So much do we love our smartphones, and need them?

My colleagues and I are designing a robot buddy in the emerging area of social robotics to help adults with autism understand, for example, whether their supervisor is satisfied with their job or displeased with it. For many autistic people, it is not the job itself that prevents them from getting productive jobs. It is the job surrounding the social setting. The new world of labour is a psychological minefield, from the stress-inducing interview to office politics. At times it is not easy for us neurotypes, but it is a world full of inconsistencies and implied sense for a person with autism.

That’s why organizations like Denmark’s Specialisterne (“the specialists”) have sprung up: to hire only people with autism for their unique talents, which require attention to detail rather than their incapacity to talk with Julie from the account. Employing people with autism to do jobs, such as computer programming in an autism-friendly environment, has given Danish society a net fiscal gain; Specialisterne employees pay taxes rather than benefits.

The atmosphere which is autism-friendly is not only the physical and tactile atmosphere (many cinemas now give autism-friendly screenings) but the social climate. Reading feelings and recognizing the underlying mental states and expectations of individuals is one of the main obstacles facing people with autism. Our robot buddy helps us to distinguish the features of the face, to make them more discernible to people with autism, so that they can better understand the main features of upsetting others with them, say.

If we see a person with a disability, we always feel empathy or remorse. The digital world, however, provides an emotionally positive way of treating disabled people – with a higher chance of accepting them at face value. Designing technology for disabled people means making better solutions for us all. For example, we are developing robots with the aid of people with autism, which will be great for social interaction. Therefore, we need the support of disabled people. There is greater inclusivity in these emerging innovations, and people with disabilities will take a more active role in society.

Achievement of elusive perfection is arguably one of the drawbacks in modern life. Neurodiversity, however, is the concept that gene disparities are normal variations rather than pathologies. New technology can bring greater equality, more significant opportunities and a better viewpoint for understanding disabilities. Imperfection is the insurance policy of nature-something we will bear in mind when assessing others as well as ourselves next time.

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