Left: Nesmith uses a keyboard that mitigates her limited dexterity to complete her classroom assignments. Photo by Robert Elfstrom.
High school student Latoya Nesmith of Albany, New York, dreams of becoming a translator at the United Nations as she completes her classroom assignments using a keyboard that mitigates her limited dexterity. Floyd Stewart, paralyzed in mid-life by a car accident, uses assistive technologies to run Middle Tennessee’s Center for Independent Living. Blind physicist Dr. Kent Cullers taught computers to do what his ears can do, and now leads the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Susanna Sweeney-Martini is completing her college education in Seattle with the aid of a power wheelchair and voice-input
Freedom Machines is not a profile of “unusual” people who have “overcome their disabilities” or succeeded “despite” their physical conditions. Rather, in showing what is possible, the film asks viewers to question accepted ideas of what “disability” means. And access to assistive technologies is properly set in the context of civil rights and public policy rather than limited to the realm of charity or good will.
Freedom Machines replaces romantic notions of gallant individual struggles with the reality of society’s attitudes and choices about assistive technologies. Who has access and who doesn’t?
» There are an estimated 54 million people with disabilities living in the United States. (U.S. Census Bureau)
» There are nearly 7 million school-aged children with disabilities in the U.S. (Congressional Research Service)
» Nearly 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed. (U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division and Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division)
» Almost 40 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities live in poverty. (World Institute on Disability)
» Fewer than 25 percent of people with disabilities who could be helped by assistive technology are using it. (Alliance for Technology Access)
What decisions do we make about the design of our buildings, streets, transportation, and media? Who bears the costs and who benefits? Do we see assistive technologies as burdensome disability devices, or, as inventor Dean Kamen says, “enabling devices”? And if they are enabling devices, what do they enable us — all of us — to do?
Freedom Machines shows what is now possible and what soon will be possible. But, as the film demonstrates, the existence of the technology is not enough to ensure its use. Liberating new technologies remain out of reach for many of America’s 54 million disabled people. As summarized by Jackie Brand, founder of the Alliance for Technology Access and mother of one of the women profiled in Freedom Machines, “It’s a terribly frustrating thing to look at something that you know would change your life so enormously and be so powerful for you, and to know it’s not to be had because you don’t have the resources and the society has not decided that it’s important enough for you to have.”
Left: Shoshana Brand using a keyboard created for her as a child by a family friend. Courtesy of Jackie Brand.
The lives of the people we meet in Freedom Machines underscore the fact that the promises of 1990’s landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated equal access to education, employment, and other essential activities and services for the country’s largest minority group, remain largely unfulfilled. The benefits of new technology, new laws, and new design concepts are being held hostage to lack of funding, information, and political will.
As a result, society as a whole misses the chance to maximize human potential and productivity. As evidence, Freedom Machines explores the concept of “universal design” (UD), which employs technology and architecture to make environments adaptable to the particular needs and abilities of a wide range of individuals. In doing so, UD is breaking down social distinctions between “abled” and “disabled.” For example, the simple curb cut, once controversial, today facilitates the movements of mothers with baby carriages, delivery people with carts, even skateboarders, along with people who use wheelchairs.
Narrated by actor Peter Dinklage, star of the acclaimed film The Station Agent, Freedom Machines is a timely and dramatic look at technology’s new “enabling” wonders, and at the contradictions in social policy and attitudes that prevent their full employment by all those who need or can benefit from them. Freedom Machines dares to envision a genuinely inclusive community, a community that benefits from each of its unique members contributing at their full capacity.