Wednesday 1 May 2013

BADD2013: A Sticky Situation (1/3)

There was a time when speech recognition software was about as specialist as tech got. I remember in the dark old days of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 4 wowing people with the barely understandable translations offered me after an hour training my PC to the individual cadence of my speech by bellowing out, steadily, in a Newsreader voice, a section from Alice in Wonderland. Things move on, and now, not only has the process simplified remarkably and become a genuine alternative to typing (almost), the integration of this tech into smart phones has removed the associations it once had with disability.

I recently read a wonderful article about disability in anthropology/archaeology on the same day that I read through one of Deb's blog post comments in which she explained how she interprets the Social Model of Disability. There is a simplicity about the concept I greatly admire - in fact, more than that, it makes me feel safe. All the best theories do, as they pin down the messes of reality into a manageable lump. So, in the words of Aimee Mann, this is how it goes;

Society is what disables us. And that disability can be caused by many different things - physical impairment, emotional distress and even prejudice itself. The impairments are unique and different, but we are united as a group by our universal experience of social disablism. 

My father is a great man. He has always kept me safe, whilst encouraging me to be as independent as possible. He has never felt embarrassed about my inability to do normal things, and, indeed, has never acted in a way that has encouraged me to feel embarrassed about my health and the accommodations needed to live with it.

In the last couple of years, my father's health has taken a turn for the worst. I always knew this would be a difficult time. Several times my father has said "It's a good thing you're poorly - I'd never cope as well as you do". And, indeed, he doesn't. But still, I wasn't expecting to hear from him what I did just a few months back.

"Well, I went down to the Post Office today with my walking stick looking like a really doddery old man."

I have been using a walking stick for many, many years. There was a time when I was embarrassed to use it; propping it out of sight if there was someone about who I didn't totally trust. But as I had fewer falls, felt more stable in general and could get in and out of chairs without copious groaning, I was able to get over it. And getting over it was, as with pretty much every problem I've ever had, something my dad's laid back attitude helped with.

A Pillbox sensitively labelled "Baldwin's Nervous Pills"
And yet he really struggles with his stick. And that's awful. Because he doesn't mind using this pillbox I bought him a while back. And perhaps most importantly because he's the one who actually bought Dragon NaturallySpeaking all those years ago. He sat there just as I did reading aloud out-of-copywrite text for hours on end to try to get the computer to recognise what he was saying. He didn't feel bad about it then - it was just another gadget to get excited over.

And this is what is so interesting - tech of whatever kind falls into a spacific space.

  •  Acceptable tech for general use. 
  • Specialist tech that remains funky. 
  • And specialist tech for the 'Special'. 
And it's not as if a walking stick has always been for the 'Special'. Take Beau Brummell. There's a rather wonderful statue of him in Jermyn Street, London - a road almost exclusively populated by posh men's clothing shops (what do you mean you didn't think I'd know about shops like that?). He stands there looking rather elegant and extremely confident. And although I'm not sure that a stick that delicate would be resilient enough for a chap of my weight, he brandishes it without the slightest hint of embarrassment.

"To be truly elegant one should not be noticed." 

Brummel said that. Now, I'm not sure I fully agree with him, but presuming that he wanted to be elegant, he wasn't going to be doing something which he felt would make him look "Special" in that horrible inverted commas kind of way. It was a gadget which was as stylish as it was functional. And this is why we should rethink the walking stick. I've seen some pimped walking sticks complete with torches, grabbers and panic alarms. But that doesn't equate to style. Style needs something a bit less worthy...

So my ideas for a new line of respectable walking sticks appropriate of all walks (and staggers) of life;

  • Sword Stick - there is something undoubtedly cool about a sword stick. I know they are incredibly illegal in most countries now. But in the UK at least, there has been a dramatic increase in incidents of disability hate crime on the streets. So would arming the disabled populace really be such a bad idea?
  • Medicinal Tipple Stick - I do not want in any way to encourage irresponsible use of alcohol (which says a lot about me when I have no problem at all with suggesting that disabled people should hack their tormentors to pieces), but the tipple stick was cool for many of the same reasons why I always wanted a sword stick. So, rather than secreting a stash of booze under the handle of your walking stick, why not replace that with a stash of medicine? But only the good stuff - the stuff a non-disabled person might be willing to knock over a Boots for. 
Obviously of the three, the GPS stick is the most sensible.  It is also, however, very exciting - we can incorporate tech into so many things, and with good design we can make them desirable and stylish. Imagine a swagger-stick with built in bluetooth connecting to your phone. A series of LEDs along the shaft of the stick scrolling messages from your twitter stream, sharing with the world the collective wit of your social circle.

Screenshot from the film Wall-e showing a levitating
power-chair user drinking from a large cup whilst our
hero, the yellow robot Wall-e, watches.
The dystopian horror of universal mobility in the otherwise excellent film Wall-e is its one flaw - the truth is that as soon as a technology loses its stigma, we open society up to true equality. And that equality does not mean that we all become lazy - indeed, that attitude just demonstrates an intrinsic belief that people who cannot walk are lazy wasters who aren't really trying hard enough. And it's all madness anyway - people expend energy driving themselves when they might be chauffeured via public transport. They walk and run and cycle for FUN. And they even visit gyms. And they do all of those things whether they're disabled or not.

Lazy people will always be lazy. But most people aren't, and having pieces of technology available which can help them when they need it and which, most importantly, don't make them feel doddery when using it, will only help to keep them active and productive longer.


  1. "Lazy people will always be lazy. But most people aren't, and having pieces of technology available which can help them when they need it and which, most importantly, don't make them feel doddery when using it, will only help to keep them active and productive longer." Something I wish everybody would understand, so succinctly put!

  2. I favour the sword stick myself. Especially if you happen to meet a Tory or Lib Dem politician - and there's no one else around...

    As ever, great post Stephen. :-)