Every few years, well-meaning friends will send me links to articles about new products that they think could help deaf or hard of hearing people like myself: gloves that translate American Sign Language into English, or smart glasses that generate live captions of what people are saying.
Each time, my response is the same: Hmm, cool idea, but this isn’t something I want.
Gloves can’t capture the full nuance and complexity of American Sign Language, which also relies on facial and body expressions. Furthermore, they simply sound like a pain: You would have to buy them, bring them everywhere, and wear them anytime you want to communicate.
Glasses that automatically generate captions have similar fundamental problems. AI speech-to-text captions remain deeply flawed, but even if they worked, these glasses just sound uncomfortable. I tried a less-smart version out at a movie theater, and both my eyes and head hurt by the end of the movie. And how much would they cost? What about people who already wear glasses?
Each of these devices is an example of a “disability dongle,” a term coined by disabled activist Liz Jackson. She defined it as “a well-intended, elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had.” Disability dongles can include stair-climbing wheelchairs, seeing-eye robots (to replace seeing-eye dogs), or devices to teach kids with autism to make eye contact. Some people with disabilities may find these types of devices useful, many more find them expensive, unnecessary, or impractical.
When you’re writing an article about assistive technology, which is a device or equipment that helps those with disabilities do things that would otherwise be difficult, it’s easy to get swept up in the emotional PR pitches that promise to “change the lives of disabled people.” But as Steve Aquino, a San Francisco–based, disabled technology reporter whose work has appeared in Forbes, The Verge, and TechCrunch, says, “Writing about assistive tech is like walking a tightrope because there’s so much nuance involved.”
That nuance can get lost when well-intentioned journalists cover new assistive products by taking a company’s press release at face value. So it’s important to approach coverage with rigor and a few special considerations—in particular, what problems a product is supposed to help with, what went into its design, and how it might actually work as part of a disabled person’s day-to-day life.
Start with Disabled People
Rose Eveleth, the host of the podcast Flash Forward and an autistic technology journalist living in Bay Area, California who has reported on assistive technology, avoids the press-release trap by beginning with talking to disabled people about what they need or want. While Eveleth rarely reports from press releases, they say, if they do, they go to disabled people first to see what they have to say about the product.
Of course, there’s a practical reason why some journalists give in to the temptation to start with press releases: They offer an easy place to find stories. As an alternative, Tinu Abayomi-Paul, a disabled activist who founded Everywhere Accessible, an organization that examines accessibility for people of color, says that conferences like those held by the Amputee Coalition or the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America can be a great place to begin connecting with disabled communities. She also recommends following social media; on Twitter, you may want to monitor hashtags such as #DisabilityTwitter and #a11y (a shorthand way of writing “accessibility”).
Once you find a product to cover, it’s crucial to understand the disability you are reporting on, Abayomi-Paul says. “A lot of times we have to deal with reporters [who] we have to educate before we can even get into the interview process, and it can be really frustrating,” she says. For instance, they may assume that all deaf or autistic people want a cure for their conditions, when that isn’t the case. Many reporters also assume that being disabled is an inherently sad or negative experience, when in reality, many disabled people have embraced their disabilities as a celebrated part of their identities.
Your reporting will also be richer if you remember that people with disabilities are active technology consumers and users, suggests Ashley Shew, a philosopher of technology at Virginia Tech who has a disability and teaches classes on technology and disability. That means covering the reasons why a technology may or may not be useful for them. For instance, in a 2015 story in The Atlantic about exoskeletons intended to help wheelchair users walk, Eveleth outlines the burdens that exoskeleton technology can place on users, such as being extremely expensive, distracting from accessibility changes that can be more useful to a larger number of people, or putting the responsibility of adapting on disabled people rather than on society.
Find a More Nuanced Angle
While it’s tempting to cover dazzling new technologies that look revolutionary, Shew says that incremental improvements to more-ordinary products may actually be more relevant to people with disabilities. That makes sense to me: If I had to make an assistive-technology wish list, it wouldn’t include those glasses that auto-generate captions. I’m much more interested in captions on every online video or waterproof hearing aids that are comfortable enough to wear while lying on my side.
Another approach is to look at disabled people as inventors and creators of technology, rather than (or in addition to) just users.
Instead of focusing on technology that seems high-tech or new, Aquino says that reporters should write stories about more-ordinary technologies as well—like “stoves and washing machines and light bulbs”—and perhaps look at existing technologies to see whether there are any accessibility issues.
Another approach is to look at disabled people as inventors and creators of technology, rather than (or in addition to) just users. In some cases, this type of invention is actually a re-invention or “hacking” of existing technology for one’s own needs, says Aimi Hamraie, a critical-access designer and scholar who directs the Critical Design Lab at Vanderbilt University. They would particularly like to see more coverage of people like “Cindy,” an upper- and lower-limb amputee who created tools to eat or write using things like the soft-grip tubes kids put on pencils.
Finally, Shelly Brisbin, a disabled producer/reporter who covers technology as one of her beats at the Texas Standard, suggests investigating a technology’s history. That allows reporters to keep companies accountable. She points to a deep dive on the history of screen readers by Sheon Han, published in The Verge in 2022, as one of her favorite articles on assistive technology. The article explains who developed screen readers, the current issues with the technology, and how blind and low-vision people actually use it—and the story features interviews with both disabled people and those who developed it.
Where’s the Money Coming From?
When reporting on assistive technologies, it’s critical to keep money in mind. It’s difficult to gather data on the disability community as a whole because the definition of a “disabled” person can vary depending on who is conducting the research. But according to the National Disability Institute only about 39 percent of disabled people are employed, compared with 69 percent of people without disabilities. They are also more likely to be on fixed incomes or, if they’re working, have a lower income; the NDI also reports that 26 percent of respondents with disabilities had household incomes below $15,000, compared with 11 percent of those without disabilities.
Because of these economic differences, it may be harder for disabled people to buy a product that is more expensive if it’s not covered by insurance. Getting information about a product’s cost can help you figure out whether or not it will be attainable for most people.
When it comes to reporting about disability, there are many kinds of diversity to keep in mind.
But, it’s also just as important to ask about why a product costs as much as it does. Asking the right questions about the cost, supply, and suppliers of assistive technology can help nail down who has the power in a given situation, says Olivia Shivas, a disabled journalist at Stuff, a popular New Zealand news outlet. That means you should also try to find out how it will be distributed, whether it will be covered by insurance, and who will actually purchase it. Those elements, which journalists too often ignore, can really affect users and their experiences with a technology. Before the FDA’s recent decision to allow over-the-counter sales of many hearing aids, manufacturers have typically sold the devices through audiologists, not directly to consumers. Audiologists would then prescribe and distribute the devices. Looking at hearing aid sales, therefore, gave little insight into what hearing aid consumers may actually want.
Another example of how the way technology is supplied can impact its use is in Eveleth’s NOVA story about the rapid advancement of state-of-the-art prosthetic technology. They explored how prosthetists are not paid for their time. Instead, the size of their paychecks is tied to how much the devices they sell cost. This type of financial incentive could lead some professionals to sell more expensive prosthetics even if it isn’t necessarily what a person needs.
“We don’t make things because it’s the best way to make things all the time; we make things based on whatever is going to make the most profit, whatever is the cheapest, or whatever is going to sell,” Eveleth says.
Approach Interviews with Sensitivity and Thoughtfulness
When it comes to reporting about disability, there are many kinds of diversity to keep in mind. For instance, people who have had a disability their whole life may have very different needs and wants from assistive technology than those who developed a disability later on. Someone who became blind as an adult may never learn braille; a person who was born blind may depend on it.
Abayomi-Paul also points out that nationally, Black and Indigenous people are more likely than white people to have a disability, yet white disabled people are more likely to be represented in the media.
Interviews on assistive technology may end up touching on sensitive or private information about a person’s life.
Interviewing some disabled sources will require extra accommodations, particularly if someone is unable to use a phone or is nonspeaking. Shivas likes to offer her sources a variety of ways to do an interview, such as by email, in person, or by video call. She also recommends that journalists be prepared to take more time on these interviews if needed. A source may have a cognitive disability or a speech disorder that prolongs the interview process, or may need extra time. Someone who is deaf may need to arrange for an interpreter; someone with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) may not be able to accommodate an interview on a short deadline without endangering their own health.
“For them to be able to communicate their thoughts, I have to adapt to their needs,” Shivas says.
Interviews on assistive technology may end up touching on sensitive or private information about a person’s life, such as technology designed to make personal hygiene easier. Before interviewing someone with a disability on such sensitive topics, Abayomi-Paul says reporters should explain what level of detail they would like to get into and why—which can allow a source to make a more informed decision about whether they feel comfortable doing the interview. Shew also suggests explicitly giving sources the option to skip personal questions.
“I firmly believe we’re not entitled to all knowledge,” Shew says. “As disabled people, we’re expected to give others more information about our life than most people are.”
In some cases, Shivas says she will (with editor or publication approval) sometimes send excerpts of her articles to disabled people that she has interviewed to ensure that they are comfortable with the language choices she has made to describe any particularly sensitive information. This practice can ensure that you’re portraying disabled people—who are often misrepresented—with dignity and respect, which can build trust.
If companies are claiming that their products “help” people with disabilities, Brisbin says reporters should ask what that means and what evidence suggests that the assistive technology can actually help.
“My radar goes off when I see things like ‘helps with autism’ because it’s not very specific,” she says. To say that something “helps” with autism obfuscates the exact problem the designers are trying to solve. Is this something that is supposed to reduce anxiety if someone with autism is overstimulated? If so, how, by how much, and where is the evidence? Do they mean that this device increases rates of eye contact in people with autism? That’s a controversial issue—many people with autism don’t see a lack of eye contact as a problem that they need or want to be fixed.
Navigating the Writing
Once it’s time to sit down and actually write the story, reporters should use disability-appropriate words, including terms that the communities or people they’re writing about prefer. The National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide is one place to start, but you can also ask your sources directly what language they use to describe themselves, including whether they prefer disability-first language (like “disabled person”) or person-first language (like “person with a disability”).
A lot of media coverage may focus only on a product’s debut, but better stories can be reported by following up months or even years later to see whether it was successful.
Hamraie also suggests showing excerpts to sources (again, with editor permission) or running some language by them. For example, a source may feel that they don’t “rely” on an assistive device, but that they merely “use” it.
Aquino recommends that reporters figure out the most important elements of an assistive technology and focus on them. You may be tempted to include every detail, but then the article could start to feel inaccessible to people who are not tech-savvy, or may simply be too arduous to read, he says. But, on the flip side, an article that’s too short may fail to capture the nuance of the good and bad parts of the technology.
Don’t give readers information that’s already obvious, but don’t “go into so much detail that you’re writing about stuff that’s not important,” he says. For instance, he wrote an article in 2019 for MacStories on Apple’s voice-control feature that briefly explains the history of voice control and how the feature works—while also informing readers about additional settings they can try. His goal was to better empower consumers to use the feature.
Lastly, Eveleth suggests that you might consider hiring people with those specific disabilities to do a sensitivity read before publishing.
The Story Doesn’t End with the Product Release
A lot of media coverage may focus only on a product’s debut, but better stories can be reported by following up months or even years later to see whether it was successful. If it wasn’t, that is worth reporting on, especially if public funding was involved in the project.
As Brisbin puts it, “Sometimes expectations are very different than reality.” Even if a person with a disability initially loves an assistive technology—or at least the idea of it—that may change. For example, when Shew gets a new prosthetic leg, on the first day she usually feels like “the hottest shit,” she says. But over time, she starts to notice potential issues with how the leg holds up in different environments and whether it continues to feel comfortable. Users may also experience problems with wear and tear or maintenance. Similarly, when I reported on automated accessibility overlays designed to help make the internet easier to use for disabled people, some told me that at first, they thought the idea was neat. But, after a few years, they found that the technology was more of a hindrance than a help.
Other times, hyped-up assistive technology is sold only briefly or, sometimes, never even materializes in the real world. In 2017, Eveleth wrote about this phenomenon by looking specifically at the iBOT, a type of wheelchair that can balance on two wheels and climb stairs and go off-roading. The iBOT received a great deal of press but was discontinued in 2009, 10 years after it was first released, because it was too expensive for many. The company announced recently that it planned to bring back the device but offered Eveleth no timetable on when it would do so, casting doubts about its commitment to the product. These kinds of stunts generate great press for companies, even if the product ultimately fails.
Similarly, no matter how many articles news outlets have published about sign language gloves, I have yet to meet anyone wearing a pair.
Amanda Morris is a disability reporter for the Well + Being desk at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2022, she was the inaugural disability reporting fellow for The New York Times and has previously covered science, politics, and national news for outlets like The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press, and NPR. She uses her experiences as a hard of hearing woman with two deaf parents to inform her coverage. Follow her on Twitter @amandamomorris.