Saturday, March 24, 2012
Disability and the Cultural Perception of Technology
Wheelchairs are n0t cool. Wheelchair use carries no social prestige. Wheelchairs are firmly associated with old age, paralysis and disability. I suspect people with no experience with disability think of two polar opposites in regard to wheelchair use. An elderly and frail person or a young paralyzed male in a sporty wheelchair. These are two stereotypes on opposite sides of the spectrum that are created with no foundation in fact. No thought, none, is given to the technology involved in making a rugged dependable wheelchair. No one that sees me thinks wow, that is one well designed wheelchair. I find this remarkable in that I have witnessed extended discussion about bikes, skis, cars, and electronics of every type. Not once has a person ever engaged me in a discussion of wheelchair design. I find this odd. Since the first rigid frame wheelchairs were invented in the 1980s wheelchair technology has borrowed liberally from the motorcycle and bicycle design. Wheelchairs, bikes and motorcycles have much in common. Spokes, wheels, brakes, tires, powder coated parts, gripping mechanisms to mention but a few obvious shared components. In spite of the similarity wheelchair use continues to carry significant social stigma. Nothing positive is associated with wheelchair use. One simply does not associate wheelchair use with fitness, mobility, and ability.
My views about wheelchair use are radically different. I love my wheelchair. Really, I do. I have not named my wheelchair as some paralyzed people do. Simi Linton, a noted disability studies scholar, for instance refers to her cherry red wheelchair as Rufus. When I see a person using a wheelchair go by my eyes go immediately from their face to their wheelchair frame. I want to to see dirt. I want to see scratches, slightly bent spokes, worn tires, and faded upholstery. I want to see signs of hard use. Spotless wheelchairs worry me. Does this person in a spotlessly clean wheelchair ever go outside? I also look at the wheelchair frame and fit. An active paralyzed person sits upright and is correctly seated. I then look at the wheels--very small front wheels are most common. I hate these small wheels. I know they are practical in an urban environment. Next, I look at the rear wheels and rims. No matter how well rear wheel rims are powder coated they take a beating. Well worn rims are a sign of hard use. Like bike wheels, rear wheels on a manual wheelchair have been revolutionized by technology. Good rear wheels stick out like a sore thumb. In short when I see a wheelchair I think action. I think work. I think does that wheelchair empower the person using it. All this goes through my mind in a flash.
Wheelchair technology has in my estimation stalled and has been stalled for more than a decade. Wheelchair design was revolutionized in the 1980s. For the first time since the 1930s wheelchair design advanced by leaps and bounds for a brief period of time. Many new companies were formed and much to my delight Everest and Jennings went out of business. Somewhere along the line wheelchair manufacturing became a big business. The innovative small companies that popped up in the early 1980s were bought out by large corporations or simply put out of business. Fewer and fewer companies manufacture wheelchairs. Giant companies such as Quickie have a monopoly on the market. Very few people like me exist in that I opted out long ago. I refuse to deal with any wheelchair company. I farm out any work my wheelchair needs to local small businesses. They treat me with respect and are happy to have my business. Not only have I saved a small fortune but the people that work on my wheelchair think it is cool. They get the technology. They get why my wheelchair cannot break. They get why all parts are internal. Every single nut or bolt has a reason to be on my wheelchair. The welds on the frame are elegant. The sealed hubs are top of the line. My wheelchair is simple in the extreme. I love how it looks--dirt and all.
The lack of respect wheelchair use and technology receives makes me crazy. Why can others not see what I see? I see a wheelchair and think there goes a person that has adapted. I think we people that use wheelchairs are a testament to the way we humans have adapted since we have been bipedal. I find such individuals endlessly fascinating. I also wonder when if ever we will be respected? I doubt that will happen in my life time but one never knows. And when discouraged I think of how we Americans love technology. Maybe, just maybe, some day people will see what I see. This is already taking place in the prosthetic industry. People like Hugh Herr and Aimee Mullins are constantly in the news. I read about how we are on the cusp of creating artificial limbs that are without question superior to our biological limbs. This amazes me. Yes, the technology is cutting edge but it is the social response that has amazed me. When kids and adults see prostheses they do not think tragedy or disability they think cool. People that know nothing about disability are drawn to prostheses. I just read an article at CNN.com that waxed poetic about protheses. Scott Summit who designs coverings for prosthetic limbs wrote:
"I feel that any product that is medical or corrective becomes a necessary augment to the body, and therefore, should live up to that role. It should respect the user, and offer to them all the quality of living and self esteem that it is able. Its success should be measured in terms beyond merely the pragmatic, but should aim to enhance the user’s quality of living in every way possible."
I hope I live to see the day when someone comes up to me and asks me a question no one ever has: How does your wheelchair enhance your quality of life? For that is exactly what it has done--at minimum. My wheelchair makes my life go. No wheelchair, no life. Crawling simply does not work. My wheelchair is a great gift, truly empowering technology. I cannot imagine life without it nor do I want to.