Technology & Accessibility

Every month or so, I come across a video going viral on social media about a prototype of a wheelchair that students developed to enable people to climb stairs. Even when the product’s features are slightly different, the videos are always just about the same. They show a person who may or may not actually have a disability using a stair-climbing wheelchair while the captions talk about how mind-blowing and innovative it is. I’m all about supporting innovation in mobility technology, but the reality is that fancy wheelchairs that can go up and down stairs won’t change the fact that far too many people willingly ignore the need for accessibility.

Think about it: in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in places of public accommodation. It doesn’t call for everyone to have mobility equipment to help them get around. The responsibility should fall on people in charge of the environment to make it accessible; not on people who want to access a place to figure it out.

I reflect on this a lot when I use the iLevel feature on my Quantum power chair. I love having an innovation at my fingertips that allows me to raise myself up so I can see eye-to-eye with my boyfriend or reach something from a high shelf. But I also use iLevel quite frequently when I’m out and about at restaurants with high top tables or bar seating. And while it’s really nice to not have to worry about things like not being able to find somewhere to sit when I’m out with my friends, it would just make more sense for restaurants to stop favoring inaccessible tables just because they’re trendy and have seating that everyone can access at any height.

The same logic is true of stair-climbing wheelchairs. I admit, I imagine it’d be nice to navigate places that have steps without giving it a second thought. I’ve had people point out to me that a stair-climbing wheelchair would be a really great way to navigate historic sites with hundreds of steps, which makes sense, but visiting the Eiffel Tower isn’t exactly an activity of daily living. In so many cases, a ramp or elevator is a better solution. Besides, not everyone with a mobility disability uses a wheelchair. Plenty of people are able to walk but may be unable to take the stairs. Ramps and elevators are the obvious solution for that. And what about people with baby carriages or laundry carts? Again, ramps and elevators help everyone.

Of course, evolving mobility technology and increasing accessibility shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I believe that we can push for a world that welcomes mobility equipment users in every space and still celebrate continued progress in the mobility equipment industry. So, while I’m endlessly grateful to have a power chair that empowers me to get around and reach different heights each day, I’ll never stop advocating for accessibility.

About Emily Ladau: Emily is a blogger and serves as the editor in chief of Rooted in Rights. She co-hosts a podcast and has been recognized as an emerging leader in the disability community. Emily lives on Long Island and enjoys traveling and trying new restaurants. Click here to learn more about Emily.