The book Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind, written by Kel Smith and released in April 2013, addresses key trends in technology and their relevance to forgotten populations. Read reviews of Digital Outcasts.
I researched Digital Outcasts over a period of five years and wrote the first draft in six months. I then spent another six months editing and reshaping, working with a team of scientific reviewers, appointed project managers and editorial consultants, future-proofing the text to my publisher’s satisfaction.
When I finally released the final draft of Digital Outcasts for publication in April 2013, I really wasn’t certain what response it would get from reviewers. It’s not a scientific textbook in the same ilk as others in the technology category; it’s not even similar to other books found in the Morgan Kaufmann catalog.
What I expected, at best, is that the book might be a worthwhile read for a small, select audience. I hoped that I had done a decent enough job that others in the accessibility space wouldn’t sniff too disdainfully at my efforts. Mostly, I just hoped that others felt I had treated my subject matter with respect.
Audience Response to Digital Outcasts
As I’ve traveled around speaking about the book to various folks, I’m sincerely touched by the very nice remarks folks have made regarding how the book has widened their view on accessibility. Recent sessions at Rutgers University and Ontario College of Art and Design reveal that emerging innovators are more interested than ever in barrier-free design.
Most gratifying are the comments and feedback I’ve received from parents of children with disabilities, in particular one mother who told me, “You absolutely nailed what it’s like to raise a child with special needs.” These comments mean more to me than anything else related to this effort.
In addition, I’m gratified that the book is starting to attract excellent reviews. People seem to get it, even the book’s strange bits about astronauts and baseball. A few excerpts are located below.
Reviews for Digital Outcasts
Dr. Mick Phythian MBCS, CITP for BCS Chartered Institute for IT gives the book a score of 9 out of 10:
“Starting off with a set [of] excellent introductory chapters to the worlds of accessibility, disability, demographics and attitudes, including a definition of the term ‘digital outcast’, which I was unaware of, this book is very readable throughout. Kel Smith obviously knows his stuff … This is a wise book that accepts that disability, like ability, is abounding with nuances and variation, and Smith admits that it is behaviour that has to be focused upon rather than any device.”
Tom Dekker in his Good Reads review rates the book five out of five stars:
“It has been a very broadening experience to read this book. I am a blind person who has been involved with assistive technology since 1980, and with rehab teaching since 2002. This book is really helping me expand my understanding of what inclusive design means for everyone. It is a very informative book!”
“While the accessibility of technology is getting better every year, there are still many challenges ahead. Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind articulately and passionately details the groundwork, itemizes what needs to be done, and implores the reader to do something to ensure this trend continues. This book is an important read for everyone.”
Reader Noah Fang contributed a lovely review on Amazon:
“[I]nnovation doesn’t come for the sake of it — it only comes in the name of passion, love, and devotion. I’d recommend anyone read this book because it’s not just about the technology sector or people with disabilities. It’s about a better way for us to think about technology and innovation. We must listen seriously to what the author has to say.”
I’ll update this list as new reviews appear, even if they’re not so good (such as the Slashdot commenter who asked, “Does the book have any advice on surviving saccharine poisoning from asinine feel-good nonsense like [this]?” Can’t win’em all!
Seriously, though: sincere thanks to everyone who has read or commented on the book. It is a humbling honor to have affected so many people with this effort. The book is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the Elsevier website.
Update: Phil Olive of Serious Wonder makes an interesting correlation with older populations who have been sequestered from opportunities to develop a fluency with the latest technology.
Update 12/21/13: Brad Reid of Computing Reviews provided a very favorable review, making Digital Outcasts the ACM Editor’s Pick! Here’s an excerpt:
“Kel Smith makes a significant contribution to the subject of user experience in this easily read but important treatise. Written in a broad nontechnical style, the book makes a compelling case for universal design, a concept far more expansive than the more common notion of handicapped-accessible technology. The information here will be challenging and profitable, not only for designers but also for anyone associated with advancing computer technology … this is a significant and meaningful challenge.”
Promoting a book can be an exhausting series of lows and highs. I experienced both within the span of one hour at World Future 2013 in Chicago last weekend.
My session was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM on Saturday, with a “Meet the Author” book signing immediately following at 7:45 in the conference bookstore. As of 6:28, just two minutes before my session was to begin, I found myself sitting in a empty conference room with no attendees. None. Just me and a roomful of sad, empty chairs.
Another session was about to take place next door to mine, and I watched the blur of bodies scurrying by my door on their way down the hall. I decided to stand in the doorway facing the hallway in an effort to attract some foot traffic. Over the balcony I could see the hotel bar, where a number of attendees (quite loudly) enjoyed conversation over drinks. Meanwhile, folks averted my gaze as they hurried past me.
At 6:29 two young men showed up. Finally, an audience! I thought, but it was not to be. “Sorry,” one of them muttered. “We need a couple of extra chairs for the session next door. There are no more seats, it’s so crowded.” What cruel dichotomy! I pictured a Beatles concert circa 1965 taking place in the same building as a Bill Fay performance. “Who’s that?” you’re wondering. Exactly.
At that moment, I was close to officially declaring the Chicago stop of my Digital Outcasts 2013 Book Tour an unmitigated disaster. I told myself I’d give it one more minute. Just in case, though, I started making mental preparations for an evening of melancholic failure accompanied by copious amounts of New Belgium Ranger IPA.
Just as I was thinking that, a woman from Ottawa walked in and sat down. I know she was from Ottawa because we shared small talk on how most people don’t realize that Ottawa is the capital of Canada. A woman from Columbia, MD followed. Then a man and woman from Houston. The room slowly started to fill up. I engaged in self-effacing small talk until about 6:33, when we had maybe half a dozen folks in the room. Showtime.
The Show Must Go On
Having done a lot of public speaking, it doesn’t take much effort for me to ramp into character. I’m passionate about the topic of digital innovation and accessibility, so I always try to present my subject matter in a way that delights, intrigues and surprises. I’ve spoken in front of groups with as many as 700 people and as small as 4. Both audiences deserve the same effort and this was no different.
Usually when I give a presentation, I like to change the pace halfway through by playing a video or audio clip. I’ve found that this helps break up the monotony of someone having to hear my voice over a length of time. It also provides a break for me to take a sip of tea and generally recenter.
While the video was playing, I happened to glance around the room. To my surprise, the seats were very nearly full! Folks must have arrived late through the back doors without my realizing it. Either that, or I was concentrating so intently on individual faces that I simply didn’t notice other people coming in.
In any event, by the time I opened for questions I had a very full room of inquisitive, knowledgable people, one or two even standing near the back. Many of them had strong opinions on the role innovation plays in healthcare design, with a few respectful challenges put to me and the group at large.
I always enjoy the opportunity to engage on this level, because it exposes me to unique perspectives that would otherwise go unheard. There is always an undiscovered context within which any well-intended hypothesis can be further pressure-tested. And it’s evidence that people were actually paying attention.
“Best Thing I Saw Today”
After a spirited discussion, I regretted that I needed to get downstairs for my “Meet the Author” session. I arrived to find a number of folks already with the book in hand. Their kind remarks sincerely humbled me, with more than one person mentioning that this was the best session they had seen during the day.
Besides selling a few books, the experience was a valuable one for me personally. I was reminded what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to speak in front of a group, no matter what the size.
I also felt a great responsibility for the people represented in my book, and deep gratitude for those who trusted me enough to share their stories with me. Without them this book would not exist, and I certainly wouldn’t be gallivanting around the country talking about it.
During his Friday night keynote, Nicholas Negroponte described the emergence of an orthogonal future in which there would no longer be a sense of ownership over digital data. In some ways, I feel as if the true theme of this book is about shared experience; the digital outcast is very much a prototype of a future that each of us will experience in some form or another.
As such, I am not the “owner” of Digital Outcasts nor of any themes supporting the book’s contents. Accessibility and innovation are aspects of life that we all share, and to which we are all accountable for assessing, defining, optimizing and pursuing. Thanks and appreciation to an enthusiastic collective in Chicago for reminding me of that.
A couple of readers were intrigued that I devoted an entire chapter to the use of virtual environments among people with disabilities, thinking that such technologies were past their sell-by date. This recent video from Colorado Public News’ YouTube channel validates my mention of these online activities. Alice Krueger of Virtual Ability says it best: “We [people with disabilities] are the only minority that people can join just by tripping on the sidewalk.”
I have a few upcoming appearances for the remainder of 2013. First, I’m making a return visit to Toronto to take part in DEEP 2013 conference at the Ontario College of Art and Design. The objective of the summit is to “engage in substantive in-depth discussion about implementation strategies for digital inclusion of persons with disabilities among decision makers.” I’m honored to have been asked to participate.
Immediately following that, I’m off to Chicago—one of my favorite cities—to speak at World Future 2013 for the World Future Society. There I’ll be discussing how people with disabilities are encouraging systemic innovation in today’s healthcare space, operating as predictors for the quantified self in an increasingly device-centric landscape.
Finally, I’ll be making at least one appearance in Washington DC later as we get closer to autumn.
I’ll have books available at all of these sessions. In fact, immediately following my World Future session I’ll be sitting at the “author’s table” signing copies. Looking forward to seeing folks there!
For those of you in the Toronto area, I’ll be doing a “Digital Outcasts” session on Wednesday May 29 at 7:00 PM. The fine folks of Toronto Accessibility and Inclusive Design will be holding the meetup, with the fine folks at Devlin providing the venue. I’ll be raffling off free copies of the book as well, so I hope to see my Toronto friends there!
It is always an honor to share touching, amusing and insightful stories of people with disabilities: a teenage music prodigy with a traumatic brain injury, a successful stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy, an employment agency that specializes in finding jobs for workers with autism.
These anecdotes connect to the premise that inclusive design can serve as a vehicle for innovation. Plus, there’s a great picture of Lisa Domican and her daughter Grace!
The wonderful folks at AccessAbility SIG will be raffling off copies of my book at the upcoming STC Summit in Atlanta! I won’t be there, but you’ll get a chance to meet the wonderful Karen Mardahl, who besides being a terrific person was also instrumental in helping me shape the narrative of the book into something coherent.
To enter your name into the drawing, simply leave a business card at the Communities Reception table at the Summit. Those of you who are going, enjoy Atlanta!
I spent a wonderful two hours the other day lost in conversation with Karo Caran, founder of The Joy Cast podcast series and herself a published author. We discussed many things related to the life experience, discovering that we share similar attitudes regarding our place on this here planet. You can listen to the interview via Apple iTunes, where I discuss themes from the book and give a reading of Chapter 1.
If you were to Google Karo’s name, you’ll find this inspiring video interview with her and Victor Tsaran. Victor is a Senior Accessibility Program Manager at PayPal, singer, writer and guitar player (whom I’ve personally seen perform and yes, he has the chops). He perfectly complements Karo’s mission to serve as holistic life coach, writer, researcher and generally cool person. Great stuff.
It took me nearly five years of research, two years of pitching to publishers, three months with an editorial consultant to craft the proposal, three different acquisition editors, six months of writing, seven content reviewers, one editor and three months of revisions … but Digital Outcasts is finally available in both print and e-book formats.
You can order the book from the Elsevier store, Amazon, Google Books, and Safari Books Online. Watch this space for some upcoming podcast interviews, plus a few public events where I’ll be raffling off copies of the book.
The speaking tour continues with a stop in Baltimore for this year’s IA Summit. It’s a homecoming of sorts for me, as I attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and lived in the city for seven years.
I also mentioned the MICA Fibers program in my book, in a chapter about wearable computers and how art schools are spearheading innovation in this field. For this, you’d think they’d be interested in having me drop by and talk to students or something. But whatever. I’ll also be discussing the problem of food deserts, with specific mention of Baltimore-related endeavors.
In any case, I’ll be in Baltimore April 5 and I’ll be talking about this:
With one in seven people worldwide currently living with a disability, digital outcasts rely on technology for everyday services that many people take for granted. However, poorly designed products risk alienating this important (and growing) population.
Recognizing this, digital outcasts have taken it upon themselves to develop technology tools to sustain and improve their success in life. This has resulted in some of today’s most exciting innovations, evincing a “grass roots” approach to product development that can be adopted by both small project teams and large corporations.
We as a design community have much to learn from digital outcasts. In this presentation, we’ll discover how a “grass roots” approach to innovation allows disenfranchised users to transform their lives and communities. We’ll also develop strategic approaches to ensure a more inclusive future, in which ambient benefit can be achieved for people of all abilities and backgrounds.