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.