Inclusivity in the Digital Age

With a focus on the elderly and the mentally disabled, Professor Gerard Goggin’s ongoing research sheds light on the inaccessibility of technology for some in these groups of people.

Prof. Goggin hopes to create greater awareness of the need to improve the accessibility of technology for the disabled and the elderly. PHOTO: NIGEL CHAN 

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Technology is deeply embedded in our lives today, from our multi-functional smartphones that allow for instantaneous communication to fitness trackers that record our physical activities.

But while technology has become a staple fixture in most of our lives, some, namely the disabled and the elderly, may fall through the cracks and are unable to enjoy the benefits that it brings.

These groups of people are of interest to the ongoing research project of Professor Gerard Goggin, who joined the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in mid-July this year as the Chair of Communication Studies.

Titled “Smart Equalities: Disability, Ageing, and Digital Innovation in New Urban South-East Asia,” the project will look into how technological advancements tend to be inaccessible to the disabled and the elderly. The project will be the first of its kind to look into South-east Asian countries as context.

It also aims to redefine the way the public views disability and ageing, reframing both groups as viable sources of inspiration for technological breakthroughs instead of treating them as liabilities.

“The idea of this project is not just about looking at the inequalities, but also how to make society more equal,” said Prof. Goggin. He added that achieving this equality will reap economic and social benefits and also address social inclusion issues.

Using the example of designing streets and pavements with curb cuts to make pushing prams or wheelchairs easier, Prof Goggin said: “When you design for a disabled user, often you also design for other demographics by providing good accessibility.”


Accessibility in cities

The needs of the disabled and the elderly are known to spark new technologies, he said. However, these new technologies do not always reach their intended audiences because of its inaccessibility to them.

“Often those warrants, those promises for technology don’t follow through,” Prof. Goggin said. “Manufacturers don’t have the social understanding and so they can’t really imagine how that goes into the design.”

An example would be touchscreen technology. “Rather than pairing people, it brought exclusions in being inaccessible to the blind,” he said.

“So I think part of the task here in my project is to understand some of the ways which cities work with their citizens to get accessibility in advanced cities.”

Prof. Goggin has a global reputation for his collaborations with the late bioethicist and disability scholar Christopher Newell, who had received an Order of Australia medal in 2001 for services to disabled people and health consumers, along with the development and practice of ethics. Together, they co-authored the prize-winning books “Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid (2005)” and “Digital Disability (2003)”. 

Prof. Goggin is also an expert in both physical and mental disability, a key research focus when he was a Professor of Media and Communications at The University of Sydney  from 2011 to 2018. He also focused his research on social, cultural and political aspects of digital technologies, especially the Internet and mobile phones and media.


Focus on disability and ageing

On why he chose to focus on ageing as one of his two areas of focus, Prof. Goggin shared that it is because ageing is often overlooked with relation to technology. He acknowledged that work has been done to remedy, but “there is still a long way to go.”

He mentioned iPads and tablets, which have been revolutionary for people with intellectual disabilities. These devices opened up the possibility for applications to be designed such that those with intellectual disabilities and/or speech impairments can manipulate technology independently.

“The issue becomes what to do for people who don’t have access, literacy, or the income levels to get the right amount of technology.”

Professor Gerard Goggin, Chair of Communication Studies

One such application is AbleNet’s SoundingBoard, an app that helps users with speech impairments by letting them use pre-loaded communication boards to communicate with the people around them. Users can also create their own boards to personalise their communications.

According to Prof. Goggin, in Singapore, disability is neglected more compared to ageing. Like ageing, disability deals with problems pertaining to accessibility. “So you can roll out technology, but is it accessible for users?” Prof. Goggin quipped. “For a lot of people with disabilities, technology is still inaccessible. Websites aren’t accessible, phones are hard to use.”

Despite the lack of attention paid to disabilities, Prof. Goggin pointed out the benefits of designing technologies for them.

One such benefit is disabled people being able to live independently thanks to the Internet. He explained how features of the Internet has enabled blind people to find information without human assistance . This is in contrast to 20 years ago, where they would have to rely on someone else to manually search material and read it out loud for them to process.

Ageing and disability can intersect in many cases. “As people get older, they typically suffer impairments. Many of us, when we get old, we get all sorts of health issues that could lead to permanent disability. So you’ve got this nexus. They’re different but have related issues. And I think both raise central issues of usage.”


Inclusivity of technology in Southeast Asia

Prof. Goggin chose to focus on the Southeast Asia region due to the sparse research on the link between technology and inequalities in the region.

The research is still in its infancy, with Prof. Goggin intending to apply the approach he developed over 20 years to Southeast Asia. His time at WKWSCI will serve as a crucial vantage point from which to begin his research into the region.

“I think there has been less work done on some of the Asian contexts,’ he said. “A lot of the work around has been in North America and Europe, and also South Korea and Japan.”

Although Singapore’s social understanding of disability is still unfolding, Prof. Goggin has already identified mental disabilities amongst the disabilities that are most misunderstood by Singaporeans.

This is in contrast to ageing, which has been given more attention in Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives, he said. One example? Prof. Goggin highlighted that the portrayal of Uncle Sim, the character in a Visa payments television advertisement, and his iconic catchphrase “So simple!”, have been used to show how easy it was to make contactless payments via Paywave.

“This research can be seen as a sort of early intervention, and to give some insight into the challenges and the potential best practices.”

Professor Gerard Goggin, Chair of Communication Studies

The current research is not confined to Singapore, but will also include Indonesia and Vietnam, he said, adding that his project will likely look beyond these countries.

After examining these three larger markets, he hopes to move on to the smaller ones like Laos and Cambodia.


Outcomes of the project

The ultimate goal of this project is to improve the accessibility of technology. But before that, it must raise awareness of this issue.

“I think this is important, particularly for policymakers and organisations,” he said. “It’s about trying to help them understand and also provide them with some of the frameworks to deal with the technology.”

Some of these issues can be highly specialised, as is the case with Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and driverless cars, which will be the technological areas of focus of the project.

“So part of what I’m interested in is that in Southeast Asia, what are some of the ways in which you can see the promise and which is being developed? And what are some of the negative implications that might be starting to come up and we can catch early on?”