Inclusive is not a feature list

INCLUSIVE from Microsoft Design on Vimeo.

I love the video that Microsoft recently put out about Inclusive Design. It uses several design stories to illustrate how inclusive design needs to start with an individual and be user centered. I learned so much from many of the amazing people featured in this video. Also, it’s delightful to watch a video that presents such strong ideas and has such high production values.

This quote from interaction designer Mike Vanis at the 5 minute mark really stuck with me:

If you start with technology, then it just becomes a feature list.  But if you start with the person then this really amazing thing happens. They dictate the technology and you come to surprises. You arrive at a point where the technology and the person feel so close, so intimate, that you don’t actually see the technology at all anymore.

One of the stories in Inclusive is about Skype Translator (starts at 13:42). There are two threads to this story. First this video shows a school in Seattle and a school in Beijing that are using Skype Translator to bridge their linguistic differences and video chat with each other. Skype Translator is impressive, it uses speech to text, machine translation, and then text to speech to translate what someone is saying in one language into another. As part of this exchange the text of what is being said is included on the screen. The second thread is that this technology is useful in including Deaf and Hard of Hearing students in mainstreamed hearing classrooms.

Will Lewis, Principal Technical PM, Microsoft Research, says that for Deaf or Hard of Hearing students in a hearing classroom they “often require an interpreter, whether that’s a sign language interpreter, or closed captioning. The problem is that it doesn’t scale.” The underlying assumption is that there is a problem with people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and that there is a problem in making them fit in a hearing classroom.

This story doesn’t fit with the fundamental concept that it’s important to start with the individual and should have been left out of this video. This segment focuses on how amazing Skype Translator is as a technology (which it is) and then tacks on two Deaf or Hard of Hearing students as an afterthought. Also, presenting cochlear implants as an amazing value neutral technology is an example of audism, or “is the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear”.

Talking this through with a friend who is Hard of Hearing and a PhD candidate revealed some underlying privacy concerns. Assuming that the machine translation is occurring on Microsoft servers means that conversations are being saved temporarily, to translate their words, and also likely permanently saved in order to improve the technology. So if Deaf and Hard of Hearing people (and the people they are communicating with) are reliant on this technology they will be under more surveillance than hearing people. This is really problematic. If the design process had started with the individual who valued privacy and dictated the technology the amazing thing that Mike Vanis talked about might have happened. Instead the story of Skype Translator is just a software feature list.


One thought on “Inclusive is not a feature list”

  1. Tara, you directed me here on Twitter. I’m BlackCatz there.

    Watched the video. I agree with a lot of the concepts outlined in the video. However, I agree with you that with the segment on Skype Translator, the 2 Deaf boys were a bit of a addition.

    However, one comment I noticed after that was when he said that they hadn’t expected that technology to be used by the D/HOH segment of the population…I didn’t really like the impression that hearing technology, ie cochlear implants were vital to a Deaf life. Also that interpreters were just an inconvenience.

    For myself, being a Deaf person (truthfully, being Deaf is secondary in my life, it isn’t my whole identity), inclusiveness means that I have a variety of choices in how I am included in my day to day life, at home, at work, in the stores, at the doctor’s, in the community, etc.
    This would range from using speech, sign language (both ASL and other signed languages), lip reading, writing back and forth, acting, sign language or oral interpreters, MRC Relay, VRS, faxes, email, Skype…. It is my tpright to choose what to use in any given situation, and I believe that it is everyone’s right to have those choices given to them through inclusiveness so they can also choose what they need at the time, all the time, not have someone tell them, “you use this, not that.”

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