What Is Walking Good For?

Debbie says:

As the World Cup moves through its paces, I keep thinking about this post from Lisa Wade at Sociological Images:

Juliano Pinto, who has paraplegia, kicked off the World Cup wearing an exoskeleton. The media story is, of course, “Look at this amazing technology that lets people out of wheelchairs and let them walk!”

Lisa Wade refers us to Red Nicholson at AttitudeLive, who has a different view:

The implicit message from the media seems to be, ‘Wheelchairs suck! Walk in this robot instead!’.

In many ways, it’s as if mainstream news organisations have taken it upon themselves to fulfil the “dream” of wheelchair users, without actually stopping to ask two really important questions.

  1. Is this really your dream?
  2. How will this relentless pursuit of pseudo-walking (because let’s be clear here, we’re strapping you to a robot) make people feel who don’t share this dream?

So for the record: this is not my dream. I have no more desire to be strapped to a robot than I do to go swimming with great white sharks. In truth, my life as a wheelchair-user is a very good one. I do a lot of great things and know a lot of great people.

So hey, able-bodied media: quit making me feel like wheelchairs are a shitty, sub-par option. Stop beating your exoskeleton drum. And most of all, let go of your obsession with walking, because it’s totally overrated.

It should go without saying that Nicholson is making enormously good sense, and voices like his need to be heard — a lot!

But, speaking as a person who can walk, I think he is leaving out two important things.

First, our buildings and structures and systems need to be welcoming to people in wheelchairs. Walking is not over-rated if it’s the only way to get somewhere you need or want to be. Almost no single-family homes are built for wheelchairs, and many apartments are also inaccessible (though some dwellings are ramped after the fact, generally when a wheelchair user moves in). So life in a wheelchair means life not visiting a lot of other people’s homes, not seeing your friends in their own spaces. Even when public space is reasonably accessible, it is often not thought out: the building might be accessible but the bathroom door too narrow, or the elevators might take you to some floors and not others.

That’s a frustration that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by responsible building practices and a commitment to universal design.

Second, temporarily able-bodied people like me (some disabled people call us “TABs”) are often patronizing, disparaging, or dismissive of people we can’t look in the eye. People in wheelchairs are often treated like children, or become invisible. It’s common for a wheelchair user with a service dog to have people talk to the dog and not the human … repeatedly. It’s not just common but standard for restaurant, store, and public employees to ask the walking companion of a wheelchair user “Does he want …?” “Would she like …?” as if the person in the chair was deaf, or incapable of talking, or incapable of thinking.

That’s a discrimination that can be addressed by high-tech walking exoskeletons … or by changing social expectations to recognize the lived human experience of the person in the chair.

I’m genuinely glad that Red Nicholson thinks walking is overrated. I think so too. But some of the perks that come with walking could be far more widely extended. And then maybe the high-tech exoskeletons would be more of a toy and less socially important.

9 thoughts on “What Is Walking Good For?

  1. I can answer this from my lived experience. Walking takes a lot of effort for me. I can only do it for brief spurts; when I stand still I pass out after several minutes.

    Using a wheelchair is so stigmatized that I didn’t even think of using one for several years. Walking was so highly valued that I thought it was more important to walk across one room than travel comfortably all over my city in a wheelchair.

  2. Thanks, I totally understand that. I think it is both sad and enraging that there’s stigma attached to using the right tool for one’s specific situation. People can be mobile in any number of ways.

    Debbie, is that what you were thinking?

  3. We’re seeing a lot these days about how sitting is bad even for people who have no physical challenges. A mobility assistance device that put a person into standing position might provide health advantages.

    1. Lisa, yes, Jesse-the-K’s lived experience is very close to what I was saying, based on what I’ve learned from Jesse and other wheelchair users. But I also think that there’s a tendency for us to believe that what works for us is good for everyone, and since the vast majority of people can walk, it’s natural for those of us who can to assume that it’s better than not being able to walk, which is probably not true for everyone. So “overrated” might be better stated as something like “overgeneralized.” I also know that the pressure to walk can be very destructive to people who should be in chairs or scooters, but can only frame that choice as a loss.

      Jeanne, always a question, especially in the U.S. Most likely, wheelchair users with money (often from accident settlements) will be able to buy their way in and the technology will become (somewhat) less expensive as it becomes more common.

      Jane, that’s a great speculation. I don’t know enough to know if the negatives of sitting are balanced by simply being vertical, or require your own body systems making you vertical, as opposed to verticality being imposed by a device. I also don’t know if the sense that sitting is so bad for us will still be a belief in three years or five. In any event, my understanding of the human body says that there’s bound to be variation in how good or bad sitting is, depending on probably dozens of factors.

  4. Thanks, Debbie. The better framing is “what is the best mobility choice for each individual at a given time,” indeed.

    The one solid fact I know about walking is that the muscles of the legs are essentially part of the circulatory system, and walking can help maintain good circulation, which has good systemic impacts. I don’t know anything about the impact of the weight-bearing aspects of walking or about exercise that involve the legs but not walking.

  5. Speaking as a person who has a great deal of difficulty walking any distance, and uses a mobility scooter for travel, large events, etc., I look forward to usable exoskeletons, something that can fit under clothing, for instance. At SDCC this past weekend, on a robotics panel, a GM engineer showed off the roboglove they’re making with / for NASA, which is the least bulky device of its type I’ve ever seen. I’m beyond excited about this.

    There are, as Jane said, some serious health consequences to remaining sitting all day, starting with pressure sores. We have technology to reduce these risks, but it’s not perfect. One family of devices are standing frames, for those unable to stand unaided, because just standing, even supported, changes blood flow and cardiac action in ways that are beneficial to most people.

    Here’s a literature review from a few years ago; at that time, the results of the review were inconclusive, but more work has been done and the subsequent years:

    I’m having trouble finding some of the articles I remember reading on the topic, but generally, standing, even assisted standing, is though to at least potentially improve urinary tract health, bone density, circulation, range of motion, muscle tone / spasticity, digestion, and more.

    1. Nolly,

      Thanks for the article reference. This is one of those places when more than one thing is true at the same time. I think one of the crucial points is what kind of usefulness? Tools and techniques can create among other things verticality and help walking that are comfortable and useful. But they can also create situations where verticality and sometimes walking are only useful because of the disability prejudices.

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