Why Don't We Design a Better Wheelchair?

What's the difference between using a wheelchair and wearing glasses? Both take advantage of technology to adjust or enhance human capabilities. Yet we tend to consider people in wheelchairs as disabled, and people with glasses as, well, relatively normal. It's all about perspective.

The Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen recently interviewed Sara Hendren, who runs a blog about assistive technologies called Abler. (Abler also recently joined the Gizmodo family as a new subdomain, so we were particularly excited to read this.) But, actually, Hendren thinks the term "assistive technology" is all wrong. She told Rosen:

Scholars and people who are activists for disability rights have spent a lot of energy in the last decades showing that disability is not about the state of a human body; it's about the built environment, structures, and institutions that make life possible and meaningful—or conversely, impossible and meager—for certain kinds of bodies and minds. In other words, disability studies has worked to transition an understanding of disability from a "medical model" to a "social model."

Hendren added:

By returning "assistive technology" to its rightful place as just "technology"—no more, no less—we start to understand that all bodies are getting assistance, all the time. And then design for everyone becomes much more interesting.

In addition to the cognitive shift involved in seeing any technological innovation as an "assistive technology"—earbuds assisting you with listening to music on the subway, or elevators assisting in your ability to travel 8 floors in your building without taking the stairs—just imagine what society would be like if we paid as much design attention to technology for so-called disabled people as we do to smartphones and drones.

What if we would give wheelchairs or canes the same amount of attention we give the iPhone?

Why we don't do this is a complicated question, of course, and it is one that Hendren addresses in the interview as well as in her regular work on Abler. Seeking out an answer reveals as much about technology as it does about society as a whole. [The Atlantic]