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The Dark Triad of Bad Assistive Technology Design – Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Infographic showing the three aspects of the Dark Triad of Bad Assistive Technology
The Dark Triad of Bad Assistive Technology

Since ancient times, warring countries have engaged in campaigns of psychological warfare. They have sown seeds of confusion and spread misinformation. They have perpetuated negative stereotypes of their enemies. They have encouraged the misallocation of precious resources. All of these factors create the cumulative effect of weakening the moral and fighting effectiveness of their opponents. While unintentional, the Dark Triad of Bad Assistive Technology Design has had a similar negative effect on the Disability Community.

The Dark Triad is created by promoting poorly investigated assistive technology designs and prototypes that have the effect of

  • perpetuating negative stereotypes about the capabilities and lives people with disabilities,

  • creating confusion and spreading misinformation about the problems faced by people with disabilities,

  • encouraging the misallocation of scarce resources to solve perceived or minor problems which diverts attention from dealing with the major issues faced by the Disability Community.

Unfortunately, many times, the Dark Triad originates from well-intentioned students in engineering classes who are not given adequate information, instruction, and resources for developing an accurate understanding of the problems faced by people with disabilities. They are not given the tools to effectively co-design and/or consult with knowledgeable people with disabilities.

Typically, both the students and their professors, have minimal understanding of the lives of the people they are designing a prototype for. It is common for students to interview a few random people with disabilities and consider this minor effort to be effective field research. Rarely do assistive technology projects and classes, procure and pay true Subject Matter Experts from the Disability Community for their knowledge.

For example, having a disability and using a wheelchair doesn't mean that the person is an expert on the dynamics of wheelchairs. Using a wheelchair doesn’t guarantee that the person understands how a wheelchair actually works in terms of center of gravity, wheel placement, body positioning, on obstacles, and in rough terrain environments. Lived experience is only one part of understanding.

The typical bicycle rider has little knowledge of the workings of a bicycle. In order to understand how a bicycle functions, you consult with skilled bike riders who also have knowledge of the physics of riding and the construction of bicycles. The same situation exists for wheelchairs. Just like with bicycles, it matters which wheelchair user you talk to. Lack of experience with dealing with people with disabilities, leads design students to think of people with disabilities as a monolithic group. Where a problem/solution for one person is systemic representation.

The resulting assistive technology prototypes usually reflect significant able-bodied bias which naturally tend to appeal to fellow able-bodied design students, professors, and the mainstream media. Promoting the need for their creation goes hand in hand with expounding on the perceived problem it solves. If the prototype is the spawn of able-bodied bias and lack of understanding, their design promotion will encourage these ills.

Subject Matter Experts from the Disability Community are rarely asked their opinions or invited to evaluate the “innovative” AT device and provide critical feedback. “Nothing for us, without us” is replaced by “We know what is best for you.”

There are no established minimum standards for the effectiveness of AT design projects and prototypes. No agreed upon metrics to judge their functionality in the real world when used by real people with disabilities. No place to build a continuum of knowledge to share what works and what doesn't in order to harness the power of feedback and evolution.

The end result is students, professors, and universities left with the warm fuzzy feeling that they have made the world a better place with their prototype, while the Disability Community is left to deal with the consequences created by the Dark Triad of Bad Assistive Technology Design.

To be clear, not all designs created by able-bodied students reflect the Dark Triad, but many do. To defeat the Dark Triad, treat the design of products for people with disabilities with the same proven approach applied to mainstream problems. Begin by spending more time, energy and resources on understanding the problem by enlisting the services of those who are qualified to help you. And finally, use consult them to evaluate (peer review) your solution before representing to the world how great it is.


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