(Bene)tech as a leveler

Disability issues are a third rail in our public discourse. To “de-electrify” this rail is no simple task. It requires us to be critical of our own predilections and instincts. Here’s the problem: We’re human. Humans are reflexively disconcerted by what we perceive as an aberration from the norm. For this reason, we celebrate difference in the abstract, but are often paralyzed by it in practice; we exalt people and things we perceive as different, but devote too little time to truly understanding them. How can we have robust conversations about addressing the unique challenges facing people with disabilities if we’re afraid to broach the subject of disability in the first place? We can’t. To make real headway on these challenges, we have to check those parts of our nature and our milieu that compel us to clam up in the face of “otherness.” We have to bridge the gap between our best of intentions and our actions in the world.

3D printer in action

3D printer in action

Thankfully, there are social advocacy organizations that realize this. An example par excellence: the Silicon Valley-based non-profit, Benetech. The men and women of Benetech realize that one of the greatest opportunities for progress on disability issues lies at the confluence of education, technology, science and public policy. They encourage individuals from across these fields – both with and without disabilities – to work together to develop solutions to accessibility challenges. Benetech’s latest effort on this front: A convening of library, museum and school professionals from across the country to discuss strategies for using 3D printing technology to improve the quality of education for students with disabilities. I was honored to be given the chance to attend and share my perspective on 3D printing as a policy professional.

The convening’s discussions and workshops highlighted a number of ways in which 3D printers can level the playing field for students with disabilities. 3D printers can render molecules and mathematical models coated with braille to bring STEM learning to life for individuals with print disabilities; they can provide a boost of confidence to a child whose motor skills are compromised by cerebral palsy by helping him or her create an intricately shaped object; and they can energize a student with a learning disability by illustrating a practical application of a subject with which he or she may struggle. Participants discussed how libraries, schools and museums can collaborate to help disabled students everywhere enjoy these and more “leveling” applications of 3D printing technology.

As fruitful as Benetech’s San Jose convening was, its participants all agreed that it should represent the beginning of a broader conversation on the need to use technology to address the myriad of learning challenges facing disabled students; one that must include not just professionals from the library, museum and school communities, but also government decision makers, academics and the public. The more people we involve in the conversation, the closer we will come to de-electrifying the third rail of disability issues in the education, tech and policy arenas.

Benetech is already taking steps to broaden the conversation. Last month, Benetech staff and participants in its June convening on 3D printing held a webinar in which they highlighted several projects they’ve spearheaded to raise awareness of the capacity of 3D printing to put students with disabilities on a level playing field with their peers. These include the development of draft technical standards aimed at making 3D printing technology accessible, and the creation of 3D printing curricula that encourage teachers to use 3D printers and 3D printed objects to create new learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

The ALA Washington Office would like to thank Lisa Wadors Verne, Robin Seaman, Anh Bui, Julie Noblitt and the rest of the Benetech team for the opportunity to participate in its June convening on 3D printing. ALA Washington looks forward to continued engagement with Benetech – we have already begun discussions with Lisa, Robin, Anh, Julie and others about how libraries can promote their work to improve access to digital content and empower all people to enjoy the transformative power of technology.

You can read about a program on 3D printing and educational equity that Benetech has proposed for the 2016 SXSWedu conference here.

About Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Office for Information Technology Policy.