It feels like every few months, the media becomes infatuated with a new piece of flashy technology peddled to solve a purported disability-related problem.
This is how we get things like “signing gloves” that purport to translate American Sign Language (they do not), expensive portable GPS units for blind people, or high-concept decoder rings that allow blind people to read non-Braille texts. The most recent is a stair-climbing wheelchair, which actually isn’t a new concept.
Typically, the technology is pitched as inspirational, showing us how the presumed tragedy of disability can be ameliorated with something invented by someone who is not disabled. Design students in particular are frequent offenders, like the students who needlessly reinvented the beach wheelchair (did you know that some state beaches have free/low-cost beach wheelchair rentals?) and the tech industry.
Nondisabled people excitedly circulate the new gadget, hailing it as a win for accessibility. Disabled people, meanwhile, roll their eyes at what disability advocate and design strategist Liz Jackson terms a “disability dongle”: “A well intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had.” Rose Eveleth writes for the Outline that they’re commonly little more than public relations exercises, designed to spur interest in a company and provide it with a goodwill boost — some of them never actually make it to production.
Stair-climbing wheelchairs are an excellent example of the overlapping problems with disability dongles; people with mobility impairments know that there’s a problem (stairs), and they’ve repeatedly articulated solutions. But those solutions are not new gadgets.
The problem here isn’t that most wheelchair users find stairs challenging. Rather, it’s that most built environments rely heavily on stairs, and that while elevators and ramps both exist, many designers choose not to use them.
New gadgets can be unsafe and expensive
There is an inherently segregational nature to new access-oriented technologies like this. It insists on underscoring difference with extremely costly equipment rather than thinking about how to reframe the built environment in a way that welcomes everyone. Anybody can use a ramp, whether they’re disabled or not, such as pushing a stroller or lugging a heavy suitcase. The idea that we should instead prioritize fancy equipment instead is absurd.
Such equipment doesn’t just have an isolating effect. It’s also entirely possible that it is not practical, safe, or functional. Some disability dongles come with high stakes involving people’s mobility and health. Numerous wheelchair users commented that this device requires manual dexterity and core strength that some do not have, while others expressed fear at the thought of actually using such a device, demonstrated without straps or tie-downs. Anyone who has witnessed or personally experienced a particularly enthusiastic Hora at a Jewish wedding is well aware of how terrifying it can be to be lifted aloft in a chair with no safety equipment.
It’s not just impractical and unsafe. It’s also wildly expensive. Breakthrough technology can cost more than a midrange car and most insurers do not cover it. Insurers, including private companies and Medicare/Medicaid, make durable medical equipment (DME) coverage determinations on the basis of demonstrated need, and they are notoriously choosy.
A powerchair without stair-climbing capacity — which must be custom-fit to the user and replaced every three to seven years — can cost $30,000 at a relatively basic configuration, and insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to cover the full cost even when someone has a demonstrated mobility need. A recent story making the rounds revolved around a student who bought an electric chair for his friend, but it glossed over the fact that his friend’s insurance company should have provided him with an appropriate and well-fitted chair to meet his needs.
Some technologies offer a costly and flashy solution to a problem that is already being resolved, or that can be addressed with generic options for much less. Many blind people, for example, already use their phones to assist with navigation — they don’t need a separate piece of technology. People could learn American Sign Language to communicate with members of the deaf community. Advanced bionics look amazing and do nifty things, but many people with limb differences are perfectly happy with their existing limbs.
Disability dongles put the onus on disabled people
Disability dongles are not substitutes for access; instead, they are another barrier to full equity and inclusion. Members of the public view disability as a tragedy and a personal problem, so individualized tech “fixes” are appealing but ignore the larger issue: Why is everyone afraid of the big bad wheelchair?
Most frustrating is that disability dongles put the burden on the end user — the disabled person — rather than the people creating inaccessible conditions. The Americans with Disabilities Act has created a clear mandate for accessibility with guidance for same since 1990: We don’t need new laws or regulations for access and inclusion, we just need to enforce the ones we have.
Look to the horrific mess that is New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for an example; disabled people are fighting tooth and nail for access in the decaying, heavily criticized subway system, one where newly renovated platforms lack elevators because officials say it’s “too expensive,” which a judge just ruled that is a clear ADA violation.
But making built environments accessible from the start is not always as expensive as many people think it is. Yes, retrofits to comply with the nearly 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act can get costly — but there are tax incentives and grants to help pay for them.
And disabled people are already developing accessible technologies that help with individual access needs; another story making the rounds covers LEGO braille bricks, presented as an amazing tactile learning tool for blind and low vision people. The only problem? Tack-Tiles, a similar invention, were developed by a father in collaboration with his blind son in the 1980s and remain prohibitively expensive because they were extremely difficult to take to production — LEGO could have invested in existing technology and lifted up work done by the disability community, rather than reinventing the wheel.
We’re already building, adapting, and hacking the technology; nondisabled people just need to get out of the way.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer who has appeared in publications like the Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Rewire.News, in addition to anthologies including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.