Just before Rick Hansen took the stage earlier this month to close Carleton University’s International Summit on Accessibility 2014 at the Ottawa Convention Centre, I was introduced by the CBC’s Adrian Harewood to provide my parting thoughts on how technology had been presented at the Summit. Here’s my speech.
Thank you, Adrian. I was asked to give my take (and my “aha” moment) regarding the technology theme of the Summit.
I’ve been part of technology conferences on five continents, and I’ve learned more, by far, at this conference than any other I’ve attended. I’m proud of my country, proud of my province, proud of my city, proud of my school, proud of my colleagues, proud of my friends!
I was on the way to the speaker ready room yesterday to seek help with a broken laptop (a “first world problem”) and happened to get talking with Isabelle Ducharme who was preparing her presentation. Isabelle uses a Jaco robotic arm developed in Montreal, attached to her wheelchair. Imagine my delight as she showed me how, for the first time in 25 years, she has the power to pour herself and drink a cup of coffee, unassisted.
Indeed, so many countless people have been liberated by assistive technology in the last 25 years that it amounts to something of a revolution.
We all know people who owe their lives to technology. I have a lifelong best friend from childhood, we grew up together right here in Ottawa. When we were kids, because of his developmental challenge, we had to go to separate schools. Today, in Ottawa, my friend and I would be in the same classroom, part of the next generation growing up in a city where a combination of technology and courageous change in school board attitudes is changing how we roll here: kids growing up in a world where they’ve known nothing but inclusivity.
And today, through the convergence of mobile devices, clever software, and courageous persistence, my friend is now reading books on his own for the first time in his life. And I have more innovation to share with him from these past three days…
At the conference, I saw technology that makes what I show in my presentations pale. Dozens of remarkable innovations, and not just in the digital accessibility field that I know best. Innovations like 3D-printed affordable prosthetic limbs designed by students. The next generation of inventors includes the student who told me, “We’ll 3D print you a ramp!” Yet more evidence for me that Carleton University is en route to being the most accessible university on Earth.
As this next wave of inspiring technologists joins the professional world, I was calculating that over 95% of the designers and engineers and programmers who have ever lived are alive today. And it’s up to us to define what each of our professions will be about.
We are inventing the future together. It’s been a remarkable and inspiring Summit and, like most of you, I’m leaving the conference involved in several new multidisciplinary collaborations … born from the remarkable cross-pollination of varied areas of expertise brought together by our common belief in a better world.
I’m convinced that the Summit will NOT end today. Rather, it will continue in the hundreds of projects and connections enabled by the elevation of discourse that we’ve achieved together over the past few days.
There have been perhaps 10,000 generations of homo sapiens. I cannot explain the fortune that has allowed you and I to be alive together in this 10,000th generation. The first generation where we have the power to use our inventiveness to perhaps overcome biology, to even overcome fate.
Which brings me to my aha moment. At the banquet last night, amongst the dancing and music, retired sniper Jody Mitic shared the inspiring motivational story of how he courageously overcame his injury from his second tour in Afghanistan. He spoke of how the enemy had got to him with a cleverly designed land mine that, in one terrible moment, destroyed both his legs.
Imagining that moment really made me pause and think about how we humans have an enormous and urgent choice to make.
We can use our creative powers to invent tools that destroy and disfigure and humiliate and intimidate and create fear…
We can waste our creative powers distracting ourselves from society’s most urgent problems, creating products no one really needs…
Or we can use our ingenuity and the opportunity of this moment, living in this culture, living in this privileged place, to choose to create a better civilization together. A civilization that loves and embraces and emboldens everyone. A civilization that, just like Jody’s comrades, refuses to leave anyone behind.
That is exactly what we have been creating together over these past four days and what we can continue to do. And because we can, we must.
Thank you all, so much (and especially Dean Mellway for recruiting me in the first place) for allowing me to be a part of organizing it!