‘People with disabilities are some of the best problem-solvers in our society’

16 Jul 2019

Noel Joyce speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Noel Joyce, head of design at Hax, believes that those living with a disability have a superpower that lets them, in some aspects, see into the future.

As part of our efforts to optimise human society into the most efficient mechanism, we attempt to create a world for the most ‘average person’ possible. The only problem is that what defines an average person is always changing. This means many get left out of the conversation on what makes a good decision about, say, infrastructure.

That’s the opinion of Noel Joyce, head of design at international hardware accelerator Hax, who spoke at Inspirefest 2019 last May. After a mountain biking accident left him paralysed and in a wheelchair, ending his career in the military, Joyce went back to education to study design. Since then, he has co-founded and developed a number of start-ups.

Speaking on stage as a person with a disability, he noted that because of the challenges posed day to day in a society largely built for able-bodied people, he and people like him across the world have developed a necessary ‘superpower’.

A matter of survival

“[People with disabilities] have a unique insight into problems in a frequency that is multiples of what the average person will experience every day of their lives,” Joyce said.

“This means that we are constantly engaged in solving hard problems and constantly planning ahead for eventualities in a world which is in many cases uncertain. It’s probably fair to say that people with disabilities are some of the best forward-planners and problem-solvers in our society.”

To some degree, he added, many able-bodied people are subconsciously biased to think that those with a disability are only able to think of answers to solve their own problems, rather than the society as a whole. What’s more, the natural order of things should be for them to help a person with disabilities instead of the other way around.

“People with disabilities who do things or manage to live their lives are referred to as ‘brave and inspiring’,” he said.

“In some circumstances, though, it is very much about survival and getting through the next day. Imagine bringing to bear this superpower on the toughest problems we face every day?”

Realities of getting older

One thing that is for certain, whether you’re able-bodied or have a disability, is that global demographics show the world population is getting older, and with that will come more acquired disabilities.

For this reason, Joyce believes that if the voices of people with disabilities are included in planning for the future, we have the power to prolong our bodily autonomy for generations to come. One example could be in the development of robots and cobots that are not designed to negotiate obstacles that we as humans have built, but ones that are designed to help us as we change in our bodies.

Concluding, Joyce made a plea to governments, companies and employers across the globe to take advantage of a unique opportunity in engaging people with disabilities in work, problem-solving and in resolving societal issues.

However, he stressed this shouldn’t be just because “it’s a mandatory obligation or paints you in a good light as a compassionate entity”.

“Do not look at disability as something that needs to be helped, look at it as your future selves,” he said.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic