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A white, bald man with glasses is excited to eat fried chicken and is being fed by a robotic arm.

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A white, bald man with glasses is excited to eat fried chicken and is being fed by a robotic arm.

Top 10 questionable assistive tech

We know the techbros are trying to help, but maybe we should just stop building stairs in the first place?

  • Top 10 questionable assistive tech
    The D*List
  • Ah, ‘assistive technology’. It often promises so much and delivers so little. As the previously linked cautionary tale of Gillette’s ‘inclusive deodorant’ illustrates, companies can sometimes make a big deal about how transformational, liberating, and life-changing their products will be, only for disabled people to respond with a collective… shrug.

    So where does it all go wrong, and why do so many products miss the mark? While we live in a world full of barriers begging for solutions, it’s clear that some of the most innovative ideas provide more questions than answers. 

    The first mistake we see some inventors make is assuming that disability is a one-size-fits-all experience. However, as we know, even two wheelchair users’ needs and experiences can vary wildly, let alone differences across other impairments and disabilities. Marketing a product as “designed for people with disabilities” is a sure-fire way to signal to potential customers that you don’t really understand them at all.

  • While we live in a world full of barriers begging for solutions, it’s clear that some of the most innovative ideas provide more questions than answers

  • The second challenge is that these products are often eye-wateringly expensive. And in some ways, that makes sense. Designing a product that meets a range of different needs, that you can’t produce at the sorts of scale you need to make them affordable, means they stay out of reach for most people. And when some of this technology is genuinely useful, the price tag locks so many people out that you wonder if it’s worth it.

    But the main reason some of these products ultimately miss the mark is the biggest of all: they aren’t designed alongside the community. Designing for disabled people is a recipe for disaster, despite how clever designers and engineers might think they are. It belies a sense of superiority - that they know better than the people who will ultimately use - and purchase - these products. So our advice is, as always, listen to disabled people. We’ll tell you what works - and what doesn’t - and how your great ideas and intentions can be channelled in the most useful ways. 

    To illustrate this phenomenon, we’ve collected ten examples of questionable assistive technology. We’re not saying that any of these are bad, necessarily, but it’s certainly a quirky collection that we think you’ll have some thoughts on.

    In no particular order: 


    Legs don’t work? No worries! Get a new robotic pair. But really, while the inventors might have thought this was the solution to ‘walking again’, and they undoubtedly have some value in the rehabilitation space, can you imagine how impractical these are when you’re in a rush to use the toilet?

    Umbrella hat

    Have we finally found the answer to wheeling in the rain? While this umbrella hat might be more of a novelty invention rather than assistive technology, the aesthetic is… questionable. Although many of us with visible disabilities are used to being stared at, are we sure we want to give strangers another reason to look twice by wearing an umbrella on your head?

    Stair-climbing wheelchair

    If this really was the solution to climbing stairs, we’d need one for every wheelchair-user in the world, which seems… impractical. We’d argue it’s easier to just build one lift - or quit the stair game entirely - than ask folks to fork out for one of these.

    Robotic feeding arm

    So many questions! How does it know where your mouth is? Can it pick up the food that falls off the spoon itself? What if your food needs cutting up?  And most importantly, how will it cope with KFC wicked wings?

  • Phone-connected walking stick

    When mobility aids and spam callers unite! Seriously though, if an Apple Watch isn’t really your thing, why not cut to the chase and integrate your Nan’s weekly phone calls straight into your walking stick? 

    Motion-stabilising lipstick

    This seems genuinely cool - and won a TIME innovation award in 2023. But it’s not on sale yet, so consider us on the fence until L’Oreal proves this actually works. 

    Transcribing glasses

    This attachment clips onto standard glasses - or any frames - and adds a heads-up display that streams closed captions in real time. Again, very cool, but also not an actual product just yet. What is with all these accessible technologies that exist only as glossy promo videos? 

    Tiny EV for wheelchair-users

    Okay, this car is kinda great and several of The D*List team would totally use one to get around. Plus, there aren’t many EV mobility vehicles available just yet. But if we’re honest, it doesn’t look super safe if you were in a car accident - can we not have convenience and a 5-star safety rating please? 

  • Robot student

    This is a child-like robot that connects a student who can’t be physically present at school with the rest of their classroom. The robot can communicate the emotions the student is feeling to the teacher, while the student watches the teacher teach the curriculum. It’s a casual NZ$7500 + $1300 each year, so not in the price range of – well, anyone really – but this one could actually be a game-changer for some young people. 

    Hand-stabilising gloves

    These aren’t the kind of gloves that will keep your hands warm or prevent blisters if you’re pushing a wheelchair, but instead will claim to help stabilise your hands for those who experience tremors. The GyroGlove website states that their product “provides no long term benefit”, which reads as a significantly more pointed version of “your mileage may vary”. 

    Innovative solutions like these blend creativity with functionality, offering glimpses of a future where everyday challenges are overcome thanks to technology. And while some of these inventions may make us giggle or raise eyebrows, it’s important to remember that behind the humour lies the truth that some of these things genuinely make a big difference in some people's lives. So while sharing a laugh is a useful way to avoid rage-crying at the inaccessibility of the world, we’re not judging really – just hoping that one day soon, designers, engineers and techbros finally get it right. 

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