Telepresence Robots Make Museums Accessible to Everyone

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July 22 2014 12:02 PM

A Quick Reminder That Technology Can Be Wonderful

Telepresence robots make it possible for people with disabilities to visit museums.

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Telepresence robots are not the only technology out there that has the potential to revolutionize accessibility—the Food and Drug Administration just approved a special exoskeleton that enables those paralyzed from the waist down to “walk” again, and a biotechnology breakthrough could find a cure for such spinal cord injuries. Yet, while an exoskeleton is a technology with a very specific and limited market, telepresence robots can appeal to a much broader user base and are commercially available today.

Henry Evans at home with his wife, Jane, and son Mike.
Henry Evans at home with his wife, Jane, and son Mike.

Courtesy of Suitable Technologies

“They are general-purpose technologies that can be used in so many different ways, ways we haven’t even imagined,” says Charlie Kemp, founder and director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has been working with Evans since 2010 to study how robots can help people in medical settings. “Because of that general purpose capability, [robots] can be commoditized and you can benefit from economies of scale. There will be lower costs, they will be more widespread.”

There could be a downside to success, however. If telepresence robots become such great tools for access, could companies argue they no longer have to make traditional accommodations for disabled customers? Betty Siegel, director of VSA and accessibility at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., says that she worried that an overemphasis on remote access might change the fundamental experience at institutions like her own.

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“I wouldn’t want the venues to think, ‘Now I’ve solved this problem, I can just give somebody a robot and they visit virtually, then I don’t need to worry about providing access physically,’ ” she says. “To me, this technology is not a substitute for [first-hand] experience—it is a tool to be deployed when it is effective.”

In some sense, such concerns are built upon a false dichotomy. The ADA requirement for 32-inch-wide doorways does not disappear if the Department of Justice adds a requirement for robots. In a similar fashion, adopting new technologies for accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean there must be a trade-off between the old and the new. “Did TVs replace radios?” Evans said. “Or just make our lives richer by giving us more options?”

Ultimately, all speculations about the future for any technology and policy responses to that technology are, well, speculative, but museums might well be the perfect test beds for telepresence robots. According to Victor Pineda, an international disabilities rights advocate and adjunct professor at the University of California-Berkeley department of city and regional planning, museums are in the business of reaching and interacting with as many patrons in as many ways as possible. They have an educational mission that supports the idea of new technologies as additions to, rather than replacements for, other ways of doing things. It’s an environment that can “get us beyond the binary of able/disabled, and get us beyond the binary of accessible and inaccessible, it’s a more fluid sort of space that allows people to engage on their own terms,” he says. “I think museums are really a place, this space that allows us to understand our past and reimagine our future.”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Jon Kelvey is a writer and journalist based in central Maryland. Follow him on Twitter.

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