Let’s build tech that allows people with a disability to aspire to the same goals as anyone else

There’s a massive opportunity in disability tech and it’s easier to address than it might appear.

Disability is bigger than most Australians think, because unless you are or know someone with a disability, you’re not likely to see them. It’s harder to get outdoors, to get to a mall, school or workplace, a restaurant, or holiday destination. You don’t see them, but they are there: about one in four Australians live with a disability, and 2.1 million are of working age. Almost half live on or near the poverty line, largely because only half of them are employed, and only 1 in 3 were able to complete high school. That’s just not good enough, and we can do much, much better.

We live in a world of wearable tech, robotics, 3D printing, smart homes, VR and AR, drones, self-driving cars, machine learning and AI. All these technologies have huge potential for improving the lives of those in our community with a disability. Yet none of these technologies has really made an impact on disability yet, because they’re absent.

I see hardware straight from the ‘80s, single-purpose devices in chunky grey plastic housings, connected to other components with proprietary cables that aren’t interchangeable, compatible or easily replaceable.

The Lightwriter, straight out of the 1980s!

I also see prices that will amaze you. You thought Apple products were expensive? The Abilia Lightwriter is a device that helps someone who can’t speak communicate with a computer voice controlled by a keyboard. It does just one thing but it weighs as much as four iPads and costs as much as fourteen of them. An electric wheelchair can cost as much as a family car.

In disability software, it’s the same – software products that aren’t very different from the office software of the 1990s. The user needs to learn how to use the software, instead of making software learn how to help the user.

In the past, we were underfunded, but no longer

The disability part of health has historically been unpopular, underfunded and marginalised. This fosters a charity mindset; you should be grateful there’s something we can offer you, and you should consider yourself lucky there’s funding to make it available.

But Australia is still a lucky country when it comes to a world-class public healthcare system, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is designed to allow people with a disability to select which solutions they want to buy.

How many other industries do you know in Australia where it might be possible for your customer to get the taxpayer to pay for your product, while retaining the purchase decision power for themselves?

The disability market in Australia is worth $70B, and unlike a fintech or two-sided marketplace startup, disability startups are international from day one – the same kinds of customers with disabilities exist in every nation. In fact, the number of customers in the world with a disability is roughly equal to the population of China.

Solutions for disability also benefit from the movement towards investing in social impact and conscious capital. When you invest in a disability tech startup you’re not just creating monetary value, you’re “making the world a better place”. Led by the $31T transfer of capital to Generation Y, seeking ethical and responsible investment opportunities, tech startups building solutions for disability stand alongside renewables and environmental waste solutions as the three biggest opportunities in tech investment for the future.

Let’s raise the benchmark

A hundred years ago, the goal was: let’s see if we can keep you alive to see your 21st birthday. Fifty years ago, it was: we can find a way for you to get to the shops and back.

Today, the benchmark should be: let’s use technology to allow you to aspire to achieve everything the rest of us can.

Why can’t somebody with a brain injury aspire not just to walk again but to run around the park? Why can’t someone with a speech disability conduct a fluid, fluent, natural conversation with me in our favourite coffee shop?

It’s time we started designing and producing products that are built-to-aspiration.

Alan Jones is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Remarkable.