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.
- Is this really your dream?
- 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.