Wednesday 1 May 2013

BADD2013: Tech Expands the World (2/3)

Sophie and Stephen reading
When caught without a copy of the Iliad to read
to an unsuspecting infant, a smart phone
really comes into its own.
Having written about special technology which would benefit from being diffused out into general usage, I would now like to write about general technology which makes my life as a disabled chap so much brighter.

My phone is with me all the time. And yet, I very seldom use it to talk (or even to text) people. It is there
almost exclusively for internet related jobs. Now, I know that this is quite normal. Everyone with a smart phone has the same access to information at all times. So why do I feel that it especially benefits me as a person with a disability?

  • Weight - my laptop isn't a heavy one, but when in pain, it can be hard to rest a laptop on my lap without it being a bit uncomfortable. With a phone, it can be propped or held with minimal physical effort. It's also possible to hold it at angles with which my laptop would not be happy. So on those occasions when my body needs to be bent in such a way as to resemble a slightly deformed pretzel in order to gain some relief, I can still shop on eBay. 
  • Noise - my laptop's a noisy old thing. It will need upgrading soon and hopefully the new model might be a bit more quiet, but even so there are mornings when I've woken up early, dreams interupted by the pain, and rather than switch on my laptop and risk waking up Deb, I'm able to use my silent phone.  (It must be noted that I have played YouTube videos, confident that Deb won't be disturbed thanks to the headphones I'm wearing, only to then find out that my headphones might be on my head, but they're not actually plugged in to the phone...)
  • Alarms - I remember my old gran's alarm clock. It had a red hand you moved to the time you wanted it to ring, and ring it would - with an actual physical bell. How on earth she coped with both the aural assault and the one alarm limit, I'll never know. My phone has a huge number of alarms set to ring throughout the day*. There are different tones to identify whether it's Deb or I who are being commanded to take tablets. Without these I know I'd be lost. And then there are the incidental alarms - something ending on eBay, a radio programme I might otherwise miss, or a phonecall I need to make. When lost in symptoms or drug-haze, a digital reminder can make life so much easier and safer.  
Whether on my phone or laptop, YouTube has become surprisingly important to me. I always rolled my eyes when people talked of YouTube being a threat to television channels, but it is so true in my case. I watch at least an equal amount of YouTube videos to actual television (excluding films). Every morning I check my YouTube subscriptions and recommendations. I will write more about these in the future, but each day I watch cheaply produced films made by amateurs who tell me more about interesting subjects than I am ever likely to see on television. This gives me a real sense of having learned about things; enriching my existence and making me a more capable human being, even if I'm not absolutely physically capable of all the things I've learnt.

Then there's social media. It's always hard when people attack social media as some kind of den of iniquity. It's usually people with no knowledge and experience who get the wrong end of a stick handed out by the dark drip-feed of a traditional media which lives in terror of its own death. Social Media is literally what you make it, because it is based on a society you have complete power over. Don't like someone on your feed? Like ancient Athens, you have access to the ostracons - you can exile them and rid your world of a dissenting voice. You can follow the lives of a thousand different people, and see what is important to them. The world expands, and so we care about each and every corner of it.

Of course, the downfall of this customised society comes if we forget that it is an individual construct and that a larger society outside of our direct and total control lives on and can threaten us (and, in turn, can be threatened and harmed by us). However, people can and have buried their collective bonces in the dust for millenia past - that's not going to stop over night. And Social Media allows us to monitor and talk about this Big Society in a way we couldn't before.

Also, when we do talk about things online, we're not limited to voice (or text). When Deb and I talk with family and friends, we're able to do so face to face. Skype really has made a huge difference to me. When I am away from my family, being able to call and both talk to and see them makes me feel much more at ease. Also, you get to see dogs who have relatively little to say on the phone.

Finally, there are the pictures. Call me infantile, but I like pictures. Picture books, photos, paintings, sketches, gifs... A picture paints a thousand words, and with flickr and facebook, instagram, 500px and yfrog, our world is full of beautiful, multicoloured thoughts and feelings we might never see otherwise - especially if we can't easily leave our rooms. I love it when someone photographs their lunch. I welcome every picture of a yarn-bombed tree. Each carefully quilled portrait and beautifully lit news-story. The internet, however I access it, broadens my horizon quite literally and I love watching the world through the eyes of the infinite. 

Other than the physical comfort afforded by my phone, there is an overarching theme to all these things - the lack of mobility that disability enforces, and the shrinking of ones' world thanks to social prejudice. But not only has tech allowed us access to socialisation, shopping, learning and the free and natural beauty of the world (and people's interpretations of it), it has also allowed us the opportunity to project ourselves into the public conscious. The possibility that someone can see your face rather than just talking to you on the phone** means that the exquisite variety of disabled faces become less radical, and so makes them more easy to appreciate and admire. Social media allows for energy-efficient communication with a large number of people, and also helps to empower (even though I worry about the nature of some disability cabals on the net). And If I can watch a video on woodworking and comment on it as a disabled man who has an interest and appreciation of such things, then the carpenter who made it can know that someone who can't just pick up a hammer cares as much as he about such a large part of his life. We are joined, no matter how briefly, and the social restrictions and prejudices fall away. Tech has the great potential to project our souls out into the world where it is not easy for us to be. And I believe that this will help to change the world in ways that will make it easier for us to inhabit it.

So thank you, world. Thank you for bypassing some of the restrictions on my life through widely adopted tech. It makes me happy and hopeful.

*I even had an alarm go off on the way to the registry office - In 15 minutes you need to get married, my phone told me.
** The possibility of skype calls with doctors is something I'm very much hoping for.


  1. My sister gave me her old I-pod Touch for Christmas (as she has an I-Phone now), and I agree with so many of these: sometimes the laptop might as well be a refrigerator, for my ability to lift it. Being able to scroll & Twitter & check-in with the virtual world on a bad day has been an unexpected benefit, for sure.

    1. I got Deb an ipod recently, and was half tempted by the Touch just for this reason. I'm so glad that you're reaping the benefits :)

  2. Have you ever set an alarm to remind you to set an alarm to remind you to set an alarm...

    Well, you get my drift mate! :-)

    1. I *knew* I'd forgotten to do something ;)