I’m what one might think of as an assistive technology enthusiast. Some folks in the disability rights community get frustrated with large scale investment that produces advances in assistive technology that seem to have limited practical use, while many go without access to basic health care. I don’t see advances in assistive technology and greater equity as mutually exclusive goals. Call me an idealist, but I think we ought to hope for both better assistive technology and wider access to it, as a part of wider access to health care generally.
Even as a self-proclaimed assistive technology enthusiast, I don’t ever get very excited about news stories highlighting the development of trendy exoskeletons, like the one being developed by the French company Wandercraft. As the founder of the company proclaims, “Ten years from now, there will be no, or far fewer, wheelchairs.” I can’t help but wonder “why?” That is, why the obsession with walking exactly?
Now, I can understand wanting greater mobility and function. Many components of current wheelchair designs could be improved upon, for sure. For example, it would be great for motorized wheelchairs to have improved waterproofing, just as a start. I would definitely be excited to see more assistive technology companies develop wheelchairs that can climb up stairs using gyroscope technology, as some do now.
Further, I’d be all for entirely new, radically different modes of mobility much further in the future. Maybe we can get folks a pair of cybernetic spider legs like the ones Darth Maul constructs himself in the Star Wars cartoon and comic book spinoffs. Personally, I’d like a hoverchair that is similar to how Professor X sometimes gets around in the X-Men franchise.
Walking with an exoskeleton? That just seems boring and unimaginative to me.
The late philosopher, and my mentor, Anita Silvers made an important distinction between the level and mode of function a human being might have. A person’s level of function is how quickly and efficiently they can complete a task. The mode of their function has to do with how they complete the task.
So, I might point out that when using my Quantum Edge 3 power wheelchair for mobility, my level of function is very high. In fact, on a full charge, my chair can outperform most non-disabled people’s level of function when it comes to doing things, like getting me across a city like San Diego where I live, without using a car, in the dog days of summer. My chair doesn’t need to stop to rest and have a bottle of water. Of course, I perform this task with a very high level of function by way of a very different mode of function. Namely, I roll, rather than walk (or perhaps jog).
For the life of me, I don’t see any reason why advances in assistive technology need to mimic a normal mode of human function, like walking, if they are able to improve disabled people’s level of function. In a nutshell, that is why I don’t look forward to a future in which there are exoskeletons for walking but, “no, or far fewer, wheelchairs.” I’d much rather have something more interesting, like some motorized spider legs.
About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.