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The Body + Technology: How Google is Rethinking Compatibility

  According to Rosemary Garland-Thomson, it is important to understand disability as being an inherent part of life. Being disabled or impaired focuses on the relationship between “flesh and world” – more precisely on the relationship between embodiment and how it interacts with the particularities of the environment that surrounds. So when something “misfits”, attention to differences becomes more apparent. 

Garland-Thomson states, “When we fit harmoniously and properly into the world, we forget the truth of contingency because the world sustains us” – a misfit represents an incongruent relationship between two objects and when those two objects are body and environment, society deems the different body as being disabled. Project Bloom aims to spread the idea of shaping  a society that doesn’t appropriate “misfitting” or disability as being improperly qualified, in poor condition, etc. Instead, we advocate for awareness of these thought-processes and encourage efforts that build a congruence between all bodies and environments. 

So what does design made for everyone look like? Although there isn’t a direct solution to achieving universal design, the pursuit of more inclusive design strategies continues to grow. Technology advances at a rapid pace and artificial intelligence has begun to open opportunities for improving user accessibility.

 Google AI is an initiative kick-started by Google aiming to “make AI for everyone”. By recognizing the potential for varying bodies and abilities of users, Google has introduced multiple projects that help broaden the ability for all bodies to sustain a congruent relationship with their new technologies. 

Where speech impairment may have been deemed a “disability” before, Google has now opened new doors by improving technology to enhance compatibility with impaired speech. Users with impaired speech have reported having an immense amount of trouble using voice technologies like Google Home and Apple’s Siri.  Project Euphonia was created to improve the existing disjunction between impaired speech and AI. To do so, they’ve begun conducting research using various speech sampling that has shown potential for improving its efficiency for a greater amount of people. By critically thinking about the potential for a magnitude of bodies to interact with these technologies, Google is able to expand their idea of various dynamics where this interaction might occur which leads to more inclusive design strategies.  

Similarly, those who are deaf or hard of hearing are faced with the consequence of not being able to participate in phone calls easily or at all. For a long time, cell phone technology has been designed for a particular body, where variations like the inability to hear are awkward and don’t accommodate their use. Google’s Live Relay allows for those who are hard of hearing or deaf to participate in phone calls by alternatively transcribing what’s said into text format. 

Most recently, Google has introduced virtual braille keyboards for Android devices. When thinking about who potential smartphone users are, most people don’t think about the visually impaired, hence why even the new technologies tend to fit audiences of the same body. On April 9th, Google released a braille keyboard that is integrated directly into the Android – a design with a multiplicity of bodies in mind. Now, the implementation of braille makes reading and writing accessible to blind people using Android technology. 

By acknowledging that the body of one user may not be able to perform the same way other bodies are able to, Google eliminates stigma toward disability and impairment and its relationship with the surrounding world; it recognizes the opportunity to adapt and find alternate ways of replicating that action instead of conforming to the conclusion that it isn’t harmonious or congruent. 

Additionally, Google has been actively hosting open call meetings with organizations around the world to spread ideas about revamping the way we think about interactions between body and AI technology. 

Google explains, “We recognize that this is not something Google can or should seek to solve alone. It is vital that the discussion about the responsible development and application of AI involves a broad range of stakeholders and perspectives. To facilitate this conversation we regularly engage with external experts through academic and industry conferences, as well as in policy forums.” 

Something that Garland-Thomson said in an article in the NY Times was this: “The one thing most people do know about being disabled is that they don’t want to be that. Yet disability is everywhere once you start noticing it.” 

A divergence of function from what the body is “supposed to do” is an inevitable part of life. From those who are temporarily injured to those who are fortunate to live long enough to transition into the inability to perform typical bodily tasks is part of the human experience – so why do we perceive it as an abnormality? Google’s work here is inching toward a more inclusive thought-process about accessibility that has the power to redefine social perception of “misfitting” and move closer to achieving universal design. 

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