Siri and Me

Like many people, I am eagerly awaiting the introduction of the iPhone 5S on Tuesday. So many of us love these sleek little devices that have transformed our lives. For me, having and using an iPhone has been particularly transformative. What has made the most difference to me is the voice-activation program Siri. She (because she seems almost human at times) has made my professional life as an academic and activist profoundly easier and more productive.

I have a total of six fingers, and one of my arms is half as long as the other one. Because this is the way my body has been shaped my entire life, machines such as typewriters or even keyboard-driven personal computers limited my access to the fast-paced text production required for academic work. Keyboard-based technology kept me out, but accessible technology is letting me in, allowing me to meet professional demands and to be a fully participating citizen, just as it and many other technologies do for thousands of the disabled. What's even better is that tools like Siri function for both those who are disabled and those who are not.

This little Siri call button is not an add-on but is right there when I need it. I don't have to buy a program, get an app, move or send my text to another program. One touch of that button with a single finger or stylus and the ready microphone leaps forward, responsive and available to any user to speak words that will appear as text. This simple single touch puts words back in our mouths rather than forcing them out through our fingers. In other words, these accessible communication devices are not special prosthetic gadgets for disabled people but are designed to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities and are equally available to all users. This modest little microphone icon captures the fundamental principle of inclusive technology: build it in, don't bolt it on. Siri's dictation feature is inconspicuous but ever-present, similar to other inclusive technology and accessible design features in the built environment, such as captioning, sound amplification, curb cuts, ramps, barrier free entrances to subway cars, automatic door openers, and lever door handles -- all of which make it possible for all of us to communicate with one another more effectively and to navigate the world with rolling suitcases, on bicycles, with strollers, carrying loads, or traversing long distances -- in short, aiding people to do what they need to do and go where they need to go in the built environment we all share together.

Indeed, much of the technology we routinely use in school, work, and life was developed for people with disabilities but we all use them regularly. The speech-to-text features that I use are only one example of the universally available functions on smart devices that are accessible to a broad range of users. Your iPhone will read messages and information out loud to you whether you are blind or sighted. It will produce words on the screen from your voice whether you can use a keyboard or not. It will show you pictures of people communicating through voices or with sign language. It will allow you to adjust the size of your text regardless of your eyesight. It will allow you to swipe a variety of touch commands with a single finger no matter how many fingers you have.

Such universally accessible technologies are more than just hip new toys for eager consumers. The range of these devices can have a democratizing effect on society because they help expand the diversity that a democratic society strives toward by enabling people who have been kept out to enter into the places and activities so they can carry out the obligations and privileges of full citizenship. The way we design and build our shared world -- the buildings, technologies, public spaces, practices, laws, and attitudes -- creates a total environment that welcomes some people and excludes other people. To contribute to and participate in a community, every member needs access to the tools and spaces where a community's activities occur. So while smart technologies such as Siri might seem like just a lot of fun to some people, they contribute to a more democratic society -- something of enormous value to us all.