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Friday, August 13, 2010

Geeks and Wheelchairs: Cultures Apart

My son loves technology as do I. However, we radically depart from one another in how we perceive that technology is used. Like many anthropologists, I think technological innovation often takes place before a society has learned how to incorporate new technology into its social structure. There is as a result a struggle to appropriately use new inventions for members of society. This was true thousands of years ago and not much has changed. This thought came to mind when my son sent me an article from about a robotic wheelchair that uses sensors to follow people. Yes, the wheelchair follows the mighty all knowing bipedal people who know the way. This is very Wizard of Oz and Yellow Brick Trail minus the Wicked Witch of the West. This technological breakthrough was invented at the Human-Robotic Interaction Center in Saitama University, Japan. The people that run may know a lot about technology but they don't know anything about people who use wheelchairs. Not the use of the word use here--I use a wheelchair. It is an empowering technological device by itself (no robotics needed). But to others, like the people at SlashGear, robotic wheelchairs that follow bipedal people are "a great way for helpers to help those confined to a wheelchair". Wait, it gets worse. The robotic wheelchair is a "great idea" because "a wheelchair bound person's companion usually has to push them around, and therefore if something comes up where they need immediate assistance, they may not be able to get to them fast enough. But having the wheelchair follow them, and therefore freeing up their hands, makes that assistant all the more helpful". And, yes, amazingly it gets even worse! "And thanks to the distance sensor, the wheelchair can avoid not only stationary obstacles, like chairs and desks, but also people".

Wow, where should I start. The robotic wheelchair assumes a stunning level of dependence on "helpers". It is assumed that a person who uses a wheelchair needs help at all times and that help must come fast. The person that uses the wheelchair can never lead his or her bipedal companion, oops, I mean "helper". Again, this assumes the bipedal person will always lead the way. As for the distance sensors, I am sure bipedal people can now rest easy knowing they will not be run over by roving hordes of "wheelchair bound" people. I never knew I was so dangerous until I read about these life saving distance centers.

Excuse my sarcasm above. I put the robotic wheelchair up there with the human exoskeleton for paralyzed people in terms of silliness. The robotic wheelchair is a classic example where a technological innovation is designed to meet a perceived need that does not exist. I can think of many things about wheelchair use that could be improved but it does not include any devices that highlight dependence rather than independence. And this gets to the heart of the problem. I see my wheelchair as a powerful tool of empowerment. I truly love my wheelchair and know that without it my life would ground to a halt. Crawling is just not an option. Yet few people who do not use a wheelchair think the same way as I and others who use a wheelchair. No, for most a wheelchair is bad, very bad. Great efforts will be made to get a person walking and I will readily admit it is the way we humans were designed to move. But not all humans can walk nor should they be pressured into thinking a wheelchair is inherently bad. I have spoken to many people who have told me how they wish they had started using a wheelchair months or years earlier. Their life was greatly enhanced by wheelchair use. The point is that we do not necessarily need technological innovations in terms of wheelchairs but rather a social revolution--one in which wheelchair use is seen as simply an alternate means of locomotion. I doubt I will ever see this social revolution take place. But who knows perhaps there is a geek out there that understands wheelchair use from a social and technological perspective and is working on a wheelchair that will radically alter my life. Why, I can even imagine myself as cool, envied by others. Now that would be a first!


FridaWrites said...

I wrote comments on Wheelie Catholic's blog that give ideas for very limited use, but not really justifiable or economically feasible (such as not wanting to be pushed by my spouse, to be by his side when my shoulder is too out to continue using the joystick--using it for many hours is more tiring than I would have thought). Mostly it does make a lot of assumptions about disability.

Your statement about obstacles/people made me think/reach the epiphany: I am frequently warned to be careful or yelled at or hassled about my speed. But it's now occurred to me to say honestly I have never harmed anyone with my power wheelchair. I am exceedingly careful. However, many times people have harmed me in it, messing up my headrest, shoving a child into my shoulder so hard I still have not recovered, etc. As a power chair user, I am in my local municipality frequently warned to be careful, even abusively, had people freak about because I "almost" touched them (but didn't and wouldn't).

People brush by each other all the time in public. But wheelchair users are given no leeway for doing the equivalent of tripping or bumping into objects, much less gently brushing by a non-wheelie. That's seen as something different.

Okay, wait, I did inadvertently hit my dad with the headrest pole by mistake when he helped me load the wheelchair on the platform, but not hard. It was a learning experience about how far (too far) the pole on the back sticks out. But definitely no wheels over feet or paws, knock on wood.

FridaWrites said...

I have harmed myself with it, though, not realizing I was in too much of a tilt to get under a table fully or in the first few weeks accidentally pinning myself against a wall with a lot of force! But that was because I didn't have help from someone else to reach the garage door button.

Becs said...

When I used a crutch at work, you would have thought I was crawling around on my hands and knees with a beggar's bowl in front of me.

I ditched the crutch because I would rather be in discomfort than have all these freaking do-gooders rushing in front of me.

And there have been times, particularly at museums, when I will gladly sit myself in a wheelchair to tour the exhibits, which I know I could not have done on foot.

william Peace said...

Frida, If I had a dime for every time a person said "watch out for the wheelchair" I would be a wealthy man. Exactly what are people watching out for? I have never injured a person nor have I heard of a person being injured by a wheelchair user. The statement is all about exerting authority--a person walking has more social standing (pun intended) than a person using a wheelchair. When a person standing is really saying is my social space and authority is superior to yours.

The robotic wheelchair is silly in the extreme. A classic example of designers and engineers who never bothered to speak to the people that will use their precious technology. It reminds of the blinking 12:00 clock on VCRs that was once so common. No one could figure out how to program or set the clock.

Becs said...

I did see one of the exosekeltons, an abbreviated one, that was aimed at getting a person who'd had a stroke, back to a longer, more confident gait. That I get, but the other ones?

Duck Dodgers! of the 24 and a half century!

william Peace said...

Becs, Let's think about the exoskeleton: One can strap a weighty unbelievably expensive device to the body that awkwardly simulates walking or use a wheelchair that can get one around independently and with precision. Not much of a choice it seems to me. I like my independence and technology of the wheelchair. It is wonderful, a technological marvel.