Women and Girls in Digital Spaces and Tech

Provocation Piece

Dr Julie Mcelroy

Dr Julie McElroy is a disability activist with a PhD in Assistive Technology. She is an emerging leader with an ambition to contribute to a global presence of assistive technologies for those in need for reasons such as age, ill-health, disability, financial or other disadvantage outcomes. She was inducted into the Scotland’s College Development Network’s Hall of Fame earlier this year as a role model in her field and an inspiration to students. Last year she delivered a TEDx Open University talk and was a finalist in the Rising Star category of the Scottish Women in Technology Awards. She is also a contributor to The Social.

Julie has mild Cerebral Palsy along with profound bi-lateral hearing loss, however wears hearing aids. She completed a PhD in Assistive Technology at the University of the West of Scotland in which she investigated the experiences of tertiary education students with disabilities who use this type of technology in their learning, graduating in 2017. With the power of assistive technologies, she completed a Master of Knowledge Exchange looking at the globalisation of disability entrepreneurship and the re-ultilisation of assistive technologies. Recently, she completed a Master of Law with Merit through the Open University, as through her experiences she came to believe that she has a lot to offer in the area of disability rights and its relationship to Law.

Growing up, Julie was surrounded by a supportive family network who encouraged her. She has an older brother and twin sister, both of whom are able bodied, and she has always strived to have the same life they have. However, Julie’s educational journey has been different. Julie attended additional needs schools for her primary and secondary curriculums. It was her primary education that opened her to the world of technologies with BBC Computers, then the invention of Apple Mac computers, along with the internet and e-mail communication.

During her primary education, Julie was regularly involved in training new teachers to use computers and was involved in pilot projects of using video conferencing developed by BT.

“My childhood gave me a spark for STEM subjects. Through additional needs secondary school, it was clear that a technology career was on the horizon for me so my mindset was focused on a technological discipline. From secondary school, I progressed to Cardonald College, known as Glasgow Clyde College, to do a HND in Information Systems. I guess this is where the unknown journey into further education started, and the question along the way was really ‘how far can you really go’ and ‘could I stand out even more by achieving excellence’? More recently it was my prolific PhD Supervisor, Dr. Mark Stansfield who stretched my potential, suggesting that I should go forward for a PhD and be a champion of assistive technologies.

“Assistive technologies are technologies that provide inclusion and opportunity to bring together a variety of people to enhance mobility through technologies and enable them independence and self-sufficiency through education, housing, employment and healthcare.

“Assistive technologies can be life-changing and vital to the independence of many. Using assistive technologies can be an enabler to participating in society and creating independence and accessibility.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has indicated that more than one billion people are currently in need of assistive technology products, or will be in the near future. This figure is expected to rise to two billion by 2030 now.

“The innovation of assistive technology is a rapidly growing field. Crucially, the assistive technology market can help create new solutions which also impact on the wider market and innovation sector. Interaction with the innovation marketplace is a critical component of conducting business in a competitive business environment. It has particular relevance to the field of assistive technology, in which consumers often have specific requirements that may not be addressed by designers or the production process, even though many products have considered a universal design element.

“The innovation of re-utilisation of assistive technology has evolved from grassroots to legislation levels, and there is now scope to look at how assistive technology can be reused in different activities. At the beginning of the assistive technology re-utilisation process there is a potential service pathway. In today’s increasing world of demand and changing technology, individuals with disabilities, families, carers and disability organisations often have to consider the re-utilisation of assistive technology as for its affordability. As such, re-utilisation is one of many solutions available for those faced with difficult financial situations.

“Assistive technology is described as any service that directly assists an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition or use of an assistive technology device. It should be noted that this also involves purchasing, leading or otherwise providing for the acquisition of the assistive technology devices for people with disabilities, by selecting or designing, fitting or customisation, adapting, applying, repairing or replacing the assistive technology. Thus, the varied nature of the AT process provides an opportunity for the innovation market to develop and implement creative strategies.”

While combining her academic success, Dr Julie McElroy has had to deal with the preconception of being a woman with a disability wanting to pursue a career in the STEM, and still to this day, the challenges remain.

“The desire to pursue a career in STEM has been a continuous cycle as I believe a user-led approach should be adopted and driven by the needs of its users, operating in a way which removes any barriers to participation, followed by inclusive design which is about putting people first.

“It’s about designing for the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities — all of us really. Ask yourself, is the organisation shaped and driven by the initiative and demand of your customer? Is the service or attraction designed in a way that does not exclude people or impose barriers so that everyone can be a part of the science community or use your services?”

“Accessibility is all about accessing everyday objects such as buildings, information and technology, but how many of us consider the role that culture plays in the accessibility of our designs?

“Society can play an instrumental role in shaping STEM subjects for the generation of the future by creating accessible materials, developing inclusive policies and cultivating an innovative mind-set. Society can no longer accept this loss of human talent and potential.  Fortunately, we have seen the beginnings of a long term transformational change in attitudes to disability, and it has to start somewhere to make change happen.”