When Celebrating Accessible Technology is Just Reinforcing Ableism

So this video has been popping up on my Facebook news feed a lot lately.

It’s a video demonstrating a wheelchair invented by Swiss students and it’s a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

Now I know that stairs are a major physical barrier to wheelchair users and I have no issue with any technology that addresses those barriers. I however find the support of able-bodied people for technology like this troubling.

Viral excitement over adaptive technology seems to be directly connected to whether or not it challenges the social aspect of an inaccessible society. People are all for increased access so long as they don’t have to do anything about it.

It reminds me of another mobility device video that was being widely shared primarily by able-bodied people with the video caption “Making Wheelchairs Obsolete”

The 9 1/2 minute video details the uses of the Tek Robotic Mobilization Device which is basically an upright version of an electric wheelchair. It is specifically designed for people with paraplegic paralysis and isn’t really suited for wheelchair users with other conditions. The video however talks about how users of Tek can get around spaces that are inaccessible to wheelchairs like narrow store aisles. The device is also only really functional indoors with its low to the ground base incompatible with anything but a completely flat ground. Yet whenever I came across this video on Facebook it was always in terms of making wheelchairs and by extension the accommodations associated with them obsolete.

People love the stair climbing wheelchair and the standing scooter because they think it fixes the accessibility issue caused by a lack of ramps or elevators without actually having to install ramps and elevators. The perception is that the problem is solved without any change to society or the environment.

The happy “Look problem solved” mentality is however short sighted for many reasons. Primarily the reason that these devices are not suitable for all people with mobility impairments. Different wheelchair users have different mobility device needs that may not be met by either device. People with mobility impairments who don’t use wheelchairs may also need additional space to maneuver or ramps. The celebration of these kinds of technology show a very narrow understanding of what disability is. In the case of the Tek device, it is only useful indoors so an alternate mobility device is required outdoors.

Secondly for those these devices would help, able-bodied people ignore the cost of these devices and that in most cases that the cost would be shouldered by the disabled user. This essentially assumes that it is ok for certain people to have to pay a price of admission while others do not.

Third it assumes that it is ok to always put the burden of change on disabled people rather than deal with the reasons that accessibility isn’t already the norm. It positions the disabled body as social space where others can enact changes to mobility instead of making the actual social environment more mobility friendly. This ignores both the autonomy of disabled people and the fact that many of us don’t want to be “fixed” either by cure or imposed treatment.

Finally by so clearly associating an accessible environment to disability (therefor rendering it “other” and undesirable) people ignore the universal benefits of an accessible environment. Ramps are useful to people pushing strollers or carrying heavy objects. (for more on the last two points read Emily Ladau’s piece on why it is better to change the environment than people).

Yet this mentality that it is both easier and cheaper to as one person responding to my criticism on Facebook put it “Because it’s vastly cheaper to put shoes on people than to cover the entire world with carpet.” I’m not sure anyone has actually done the math on how much it would cost either to provide all disabled people with various mobility aids vs. Making public spaces accessible. I suspect he might be surprised at the outcome as a single ramp benefits everyone who uses it while a specialty wheelchair (that is likely expensive) benefits only a single person. It also just maintains the idea that if disabled people want access to the world we exist in, that we should have to jump through hoops that don’t exist for everyone else.

The more just solution is to remove the hoops altogether and not make ability to participate contingent on changing the oppressed group so that the oppressor never has to change but can feel like progress has occurred.

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16 responses to “When Celebrating Accessible Technology is Just Reinforcing Ableism

  1. Hi! So honored to be cited here. And I totally get your point. Interestingly,
    I’m guilty of having shared this particular video myself out of fascination for the mechanics of a stair-climbing chair. However, my other goal when I shared it was to question if the widespread existence of such technology was actually feasible, especially from a financial standpoint. People tend to get excited about a cool video that’s ultimately not a practical solution to an issue created by an ableist society, thinking it means they can wash their hands of the problems with inaccessibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some public spaces will be unable to be made accessible. Attempts at making things “technically” accessible (via retrofitting lifts) are usable but ultimately inferior to a wheelchair that can make inaccessible areas accessible.

    Also, as an engineer, I find these kinds of technologies really interesting and innovative.

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    • I’m not saying that the design isn’t interesting, I’m concerned with the way that people who generally have no issues with accessing public space posit this as a solution because it isn’t one. Not everyone with mobility disabilities (myself included) uses a wheelchair. This is a fix for only a very small number of people who face physical access barriers. It is far more useful for the largest number of people to focus on overcoming the barriers to the existing environment. None of that makes the stair climbing wheelchair any less fascinating but the context in which it is admired should be in the context of its actual usefulness which is limited.

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    • The broader solution is to eliminate, or at least minimize, the socially created obstacle.

      Stairs are one socially accepted way to create a pathway to an elevated space.

      Other than requiring less space than a ramp, stairs have few advantages.

      But it works for most people so we’ve accepted it.

      Why not put door knobs and elevator buttons 6 feet off the ground?

      Most people could use them (added safety benefit is they’re child proof for young children, but would limit many 12 year olds), but enough “normal” adults couldn’t use them to make this unacceptable to the general public.

      So why are the millions who can’t use stairs safely required to change their functioning rather than the world eliminating an often needlessly created impairment?

      Because the disabled population is viewed by the general public as a nuisance and an eyesore (see “ugly laws” on Google ), not part of “us”.

      We mostly think about the disabled population to pity them, or marvel at their heroic ability to live a “normal life.”

      Understanding this issue requires a willingness to see the world through the eyes of people we’re afraid to be for even a moment.

      I’ve been both, and “disabled” is really just a different “normal “.

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  5. Yes, you certainly spotlighted an issue. Well-meaning friends post all of those even though they would never be something I could afford. And they are unaware of the costs of even the basic wheelchairs. Even when you can get insurance to cover an electric wheelchair, they only do so for “in the home.” Which means that the ones they cover are so vulnerable to water that they can short-out in the rain. This means that those who depend on their chair to get out of the house can be trapped for days or longer. They could make them waterproof, but why bother for us? That would cost more. And if you have a job, and it’s raining, I guess you get to risk losing the job or the chair? It’s not that technology doesn’t exist to make better wheelchairs, it’s that we are considered valuable enough to have them.

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  7. Consider the iBot… the predecessor of the Segway… anyone remember? It actually existed as more than a cartoon (unlike many of those that get posted on FB) and it ‘worked’ in the sense that it was able to do many tasks that conventional wheelchairs cannot. Why doesn’t anyone have one? Because the creators entirely missed the realities of DME (durable medical equipment) funding. It would cost approximately 8X as much as a conventional wheelchair and, big surprise, Medicare wouldn’t pay for it which meant that private insurance (following their lead) wouldn’t pay for it, either. Most disabled people can’t afford $40K + every few years to buy one, so not economically feasible. Wheelchair tech has actually come a long way since disabled people have been involved in the design process, so if you don’t understand the industry, funding, etc. you should probably learn more before you try to get involved.

    A *lot* of this gee-whiz goes on around engineering students, etc. ‘solving’ the problems of disabled people without having the least idea what those problems really are. Solve these: 1. airlines regularly break our chairs loading and unloading them, some system that keeps that from happening would be most welcome. 2. transit systems drastically shorten the lives of our mobility devices using strap-down securement systems that load the devices in ways they were not meant for and unevenly at that. 3. Snow – in large areas, sidewalks, etc. are not available for significant parts of the year because no one clears the snow and when streets are plowed, much of the snow goes into the curb-cuts, plus parking lot clearers seem to think that the access area next to the handicap parking spot is just meant for storing the snow, making it impassible even after snow has melted elsewhere. Speaking of which, ways to keep motorcycles, etc. out of our required access areas would be nice as well (without, of course, keeping us out of them, lol). 4. Voice-to-text works pretty well, can you create a system that allows deaf/h-o-h people to see close-captions on programs without them?

    I think the root of our problem with a lot of the gee-whiz is that it is non-disabled ‘experts’ thinking they know what we need and coming up with ‘solutions’ that are ‘over fit in an unfit fitness.’ Teaching engineering students that they need to find out what the problem *really* is before they start trying to solve it would be nice.

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  8. Have you noticed how in both videos the people using these “miraculous” devices are both thin, paralyzed from the waist down, men? It’s almost as if they are unaware that people who AREN’T paralyzed and skinny need to use wheelchairs too (and of course if you need a wider wheelchair you will need wider versions of what they have here, which will NOT allow for the “narrow passageways” so much so doesn’t solve that problem). So tired of the idea that “wheelchair = incapable of even wiggling pinky toe”.

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    • Also note how in the stair video, there is no one else around. consider using it in a busy space at that low speed while being forced to face backward, rather than in the direction you’re moving

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  11. Some additional thoughts, as a manual wheelchair user who cannot self-propel:

    He’s shown changing from a manual wheelchair to a powerchair. Many wheelchair users prefer manual wheelchairs for a variety of reasons even before you consider cost. They are lighter, smaller, fit into narrow spaces better, can be folding, easier to repair yourself, and there will be plenty more reasons I don’t know about because I’ve never used a powerchair. Even if I could afford one, I live up a flight of stairs, I don’t have the storage space, I don’t fancy dealing with all the cobbled streets and nasty kerbs without my partner pushing the wheelchair for me, and I wouldn’t expect my partner to carry something that heavy up and down the stairs for me.

    Speaking of stairs, those are not typical stairs. The staircase has a delightfully low gradient, the sort where you can maybe even put a ramp on it. They didn’t show how that wheelchair coped with standard or even steep staircases.

    Interesting tech, and I hope it gets put to good use somewhere, but as you say, it’s not a solution for wheelchair users.

    And arggh, that second one brought out all the transhumanists who think we should be using exoskeletons.

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