Disability rates in the United States hover around 25 percent, and if anything is likely to increase over the next decade. That doesn’t mean lived experiences for people with disabilities will remain the same. Technology continues to advance, and new developments can contribute to greater inclusion for people with disabilities — but that’s only possible if designers build with accessibility in mind.
Here are a few predictions about where technology is headed by 2030, complete with suggestions about expanding accessibility along the way.
1. Self-driving cars will become widely available
Major car companies are investing heavily in self-driving vehicles, which use machine learning to adapt to unpredictable variables in the road. Hyundai’s goal is to provide a self-driving car that can navigate urban environments by 2030. Toyota, Ford, Honda, and other big automotive outfits are chasing similar goals.
True self-driving cars could create a personal mobility revolution for people with visual impairments, physical disabilities, and cognitive conditions that currently preclude driving. However, there are some caveats: These vehicles will have to achieve what SAE calls level 5 automation — that is, no human assistance necessary — or level 4 self-driving, in which cars function without input in preprogrammed, covered areas only. And manufacturers will need to provide wheelchair-accessible cabs to provide the benefits of autonomous vehicles to everyone.
2. Internet access will be more widespread, and maybe even universal
Anti-poverty organization ONE is spearheading a push to provide internet access for everyone in the world by 2030. It’s ambitious, but the declining price of launching broadband satellites — and the ensuing investment in such launches by companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Kepler — could provide internet access to a much broader swath of the world population by 2030.
Of course, the internet is only as accessible as we make it. As high-speed internet becomes available to more people, site owners are responsible for making sure the populations of people with disabilities in newly connected areas have equal access to their tools. That includes, for example, compatibility with assistive technologies and complying with all Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
3. 3D printing will become a standard manufacturing technology
"We believe that by the end of the 2020s, additive manufacturing [3D printing] will have its own quality control standards which will settle 3D printing as one of the basic manufacturing methods," Janne Pihlajamaki, CEO of 3D printing company miniFactory, told 3dprintingindustry.com.
The rise of 3D printing has already begun to make much more affordable prostheses available. As the technology advances to incorporate materials like titanium and other strong, lightweight alloys, these prosthetics will only increase in utility. Low-cost prostheses particularly helpful for children, who need replacements as they grow. And as prostheses decrease in price, people will be able to own a selection of them, swapping styles as the mood suits them.
4. Voice assistants will play a greater role in internet navigation
Voice command is already here. Google Home, Alexa, and similar technologies allow people with visual and dexterity impairments to interact with the internet in powerful ways. But with the growth of artificial intelligence and natural language recognition, these voice assistants will only become more prevalent by 2030.
That has serious ramifications for website designers; many of the WCAG design principles that make websites compatible with assistive devices also make them navigable by voice-assistant software. And if your site isn’t set up for voice navigation, you risk becoming effectively unusable to a chunk of your audience.
5. Wearable technology will change the way we interact with the world and each other
The number of U.S. adults who regularly use wearable devices is expected to grow by more than 6 million between 2020 and 2022. If that trend continues, wearable tech will be virtually everywhere by 2030.
These tools help to improve accessibility in a variety of ways, and the early examples are already here. The Dot Watch displays text messages and identifies callers in Braille. Even the standard Apple Watch includes a built-in VoiceOver screen reader and haptic feedback for sound-free notification. Watch for more accessibility features as this technology advances, both in devices created specifically for people with disabilities and in mass-market items from the big names in tech.
Technology offers us incredible opportunities to live up to the anti-discrimination promises of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but there are no guarantees. It’s up to tech designers to make accessibility a goal, building it into their products from the start. If we can do that, the world will be a more inclusive place in 2030.