The downside of using robotic and other tools to “walk”
This week, the World Cup kicked off. It was ceremoniously started by a paraplegic who wore a robotic exoskeleton. After weeks of practice, he managed to kick the ball a short distance. What does this really achieve, if anything?
Image from BBC news of paraplegic man preparing to open the World Cup
I’m not impressed. Several young, fit people were chosen to train for this opportunity. In the event, the paraplegic person had to wear a brain cap, a rucksack containing a maximum 2 hour battery, and was wired up to sensors that they’d spent weeks training their bodies to understand, little by little. They still had to be helped by a team of people, and the activity they managed was a huge effort after weeks of training. Maybe one day this will help people who can’t walk; for now, it’s just for show.
I’ve encountered this issue as a Formula 1 fan. Frank Williams, leader of the Williams F1 team, became tetraplegic as the result of a road accident in 1986. He has been a common sight among the Formula 1 paddock, wheeling himself around the pit lane, but more recently he gained attention for using a wheelchair to help him artificially stand.
I find this really interesting. I believe that people with impairments and conditions of all types should be helped by the most appropriate tools and equipment – whatever that is. As you may know from my article about the cost of wheelchairs, unfortunately people do not automatically qualify for whatever equipment they need, and often have to fight for it or fund it themselves.
I am a disabled person with many friends who have a range of impairments at different levels, and the consensus seems to be that tools to make people artificially stand or ‘walk’ are missing the point. They make non disabled people think we can be ‘fixed’ when only certain people can use these tools, and then in specific and limited ways.
Frank Williams says that he prefers to stand so that he can shake hands and make eye contact in business. Sure, I can understand that, but this is suggesting disabled people should be made acceptable, normalised, as much as possible – when what would generally be more useful would be to get non disabled people to understand and accept us as we are, to be comfortable to look us in the eye when we are not at the same height. We are just as valid and just as able to conduct business as non-disabled people – why should we stand to attention to make others comfortable?
Frank says there are health benefits to his device, and I’m always interested to hear of these. If using a standing device helps with blood pressure, for example, why aren’t more people helped to have this kit? Although, many disabled people can’t work or are under-employed and couldn’t afford a device like that; as I’ve already highlighted, it can be expensive just to get the basic chair that you need. Most people would be grateful just for a riser that helps them reach higher shelves in supermarkets.
In my own case, I struggle to keep up my blood pressure so my consultant’s advice was just to drink isotonic drinks rather than anything more advanced…
The idea of these tools (such as the “Walk Again Project” seen in the World Cup) is uneasy for me. The amount of energy needed by people to wear a brain cap, and to train their body to respond to stimuli over several weeks, seems like a huge effort when we have tools to help already. They are called “wheelchairs”. Seriously, it is hard enough, even in the UK, for someone with genuine need to be able to justify and/or fund a chair which gives them a normal life. Seeing people trying to walk, be it Frank Williams or an athlete kicking off the World Cup, gives unrealistic hope.
If a wheelchair riser helps Frank’s health that is great. Maybe he could use his public standing to fundraise for even more essential equipment for disabled people’s wellbeing! But if Frank uses it to suggest it is better for business to be able to stand & look people in the eyes, etc, then sadly he is perpetuating the perception that disabled people are somehow ‘lesser’, and rather than trying to educate people to work with us, he is admitting defeat and trying to be ‘normal’ and appear as non-disabled as possible. For those of us who have no choice in the matter, it is depressing to see that might be the attitude from a role model like Frank.
And how will that World Cup kick have looked to people in Nigeria, where Polio victims scoot around on home made skateboards for lack of money?
Surely if we really care about developments in access for disabled people, there are other ways to fund and express it. Let’s try to make sure, as we go, that people are truly enabled.