On a June episode of his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver went in on a product called the Sock Slider. While discussing the same topic on the Hannity Show, he took a moment to highlight the dwindling number of companies willing to associate themselves with his news program — ”My Pillow, Recticare cream, and of course, the Sock Slider.”
Audience members roared with laughter as Oliver rolled footage of a Sock Slider ad, featuring people moaning and groaning dramatically as they struggled to put on their socks before trying out the device and beaming at the ease of use. The camera cut back to Oliver chuckling to himself as he mocked the device and the people who use it.
You’ve probably seen examples of these kinds of “useless products for lazy people” before. Things like banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more are the subject of constant amusement on the internet: “Who uses these kinds of things?” “You don’t need an avocado slicer.” These products are typically positioned as “useless” in scathing roundups of products no one could possibly need, representing little more than wastes of plastic and resources.
Imagine being unable to slice a banana over your morning cereal because your hands are paralyzed or joint contractures make it hard to grip both the banana and the knife. If you’re a baker who loves making cakes, what would you do if you couldn’t separate an egg by casually cracking it on the edge of the bowl and using the shell to tease the yolk and white apart? The inability to perform these kinds of activities independently can have huge consequences for people with disabilities.
A variety of impairments can make these tasks challenging, including hand tremors or weakness, paralysis or paresis, limited range of motion, arthritis and other joint conditions, chronic pain, neurological disabilities or stroke, developmental disabilities, and amputations. These issues may be congenital or acquired or even temporary. Some people, for example, just need support while they recover from surgery or injuries. And so those products Oliver and the internet at large enjoy mocking? Not so useless after all.
“Useless” products can actually spell independence
”If I didn’t have that silly piece of plastic with ropes, I wouldn’t be able to put socks on,” says Emily Ladau, a disabled advocate, writer, and speaker with Larsen syndrome, a congenital skeletal disorder. (She’s talking about a similar device, not the exact as-seen-on-TV gadget.)
Ladau, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, cannot bend over to put on socks. Without a “sock putter-onner,” as she calls it, she would be forced to rely on the assistance of a personal care attendant (PCA) to put her socks on every morning. “Something that people think is a silly piece of plastic is one of the reasons I don’t need a PCA when I travel.”
Ladau, like other people with disabilities, is used to seeing late-night hosts, internet memes, and people on social media mocking the “silly pieces of plastic” that can be life-changing. For her, the sock slider and an extended shoe horn represent freedom; imagine being literally unable to put on socks unassisted before leaving the house on a cold winter day, and not being able to slip your socked feet into a pair of sturdy boots on your own.
Sometimes, living independently as a member of the disability community means having to rely on a little help, and in many cases, a gadget can be very useful. Help may also take a human face: Personal care assistants, aides, home health attendants, and other direct service professionals are vital, though there’s also a heavy social expectation that family members provide unpaid caregiving labor, a practice many people with disabilities oppose along with other exploitative labor practices.
In many cases, wasting these services on tasks that people could perform with the assistance of a gadget is not very efficient. Nor do people with disabilities necessarily want to use such services this way.
Kim Sauder, a disability scholar and advocate, notes that people with disabilities may not want to be forced to wait for help with tasks like peeling oranges; there’s something very dehumanizing about the thought of just wanting a snack and being stymied by a rind you can’t remove on your own. Plus, says Ladau: “I get frustrated by the notion that I should always be okay with asking for help. I’d like to try to use my own solution.”
And attendant care is expensive, costing a median of $45,000 annually in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Few people pay this cost out of pocket: Instead, it’s typically part of the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) benefits provided to the disability community and older adults under programs like Medicaid and Medicare.
For those who use these government programs to pay for part or all of their services, there’s no guarantee that officials will authorize enough work hours to provide all the assistance someone needs. The amount of benefits provided is dependent on a “needs assessment” in which an evaluator meets with a disabled person to determine the extent of services they require. Many people with disabilities complain that these assessments tend to understate the amount of care they need, taking a “budget-driven” approach.
Furthermore, being unable to perform tasks independently can force people into institutional settings if they lack the support systems needed to survive. Whether you call them useless inventions, lazy products, or pointless gadgets, says Greg Hartley, a faculty member at the University of Miami’s physical therapy department and president of the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy, a component of the American Physical Therapy Association, these tools can enable people to lead their lives on their own.
“[Instead of having] to go to someplace that requires a lot of assistance and ultimately a lot of money, these little things can make huge differences in people’s quality of life, enabling them to be independent and have a sense of self-worth,” Hartley says.
Unwittingly, critics of “useless products” are sitting at the core of a battle the disability community has been engaged in for decades: The right to live in their communities, and to receive the services that enable them to do that. If you can’t use your hands to open a jar of pasta sauce, does that mean you should live in an institution? Republicans attacking Medicaid funding have HCBS squarely in their sights, a policy change that could be devastating to the disability community.
But for those complaining about cost overruns, pushing people into institutions is also bad economics. In 2012, the National Council on Disability found that HCBS is less expensive than institutionalization, and you can see why: Many of these products cost less than $40, while institutionalization can cost more than $300,000 annually in some states, much less affordable than attendant services. (Although many people with disabilities argue attendants should be paid more.)
An adult sippy cup won’t make the difference between staying at home and going into an institution — and the government certainly won’t pay for it — but it can sit at the cusp of a slippery slope between being able to live independently and being forced into institutional care.
Some of the most useful products for people with disabilities weren’t developed with them in mind
Products like the banana slicer, pizza shears, or similar items, says Hartley, can be especially useful for people who can’t safely or comfortably use knives. That can include people with disabilities who have impairments that make it hard to grip and direct their movements, as well as older adults struggling with arthritis and declining hand strength. These products can also help with cooking in less-accessible spaces: A wheelchair user who is using a cutting board on their lap because they can’t reach the counter may not want to use a knife.
Still, not all of these “useless inventions” were developed with the disability community in mind. Monique Haas, of the Hutzler Manufacturing Company that makes the infamous banana slicer, explains: “We are trying to look at what would make life in the kitchen easy for anyone and everyone. We do have a lot of one-handed things, just because it is easier to use one hand.”
While the product became the subject of mocking commentary in the early 2010s, she says, it had already been in their product line for a long time. And in case you’re wondering, the company has a sense of humor about its cult status. “If you read the reviews on Amazon, you will be rolling with laughter. They are really creative, they are really funny.”
These universal design practices are something people with disabilities are aware of. Sauder sometimes likes to turn the conversation back on people who make fun of convenience devices. If an egg separator or a shower chair is “useless,” “I expect you to take things out of the oven without gloves,” she says.
Unfortunately, she notes, the shaming around such items tends to push people with disabilities to try to do without, something Ladau notices as well. “Sometimes I feel like I’m deterred from making some of these purchases,” she says, “because I think society has this mindset that it’s all just another gimmick.”
People with disabilities themselves often end up filling the gaps for those who haven’t or can’t access professional services. They swap tips and tricks for products that have worked for them, like using household tongs as convenient reachers. (Tongs are another item Ladau often includes in her luggage, much to the confusion of the TSA.)
This kind of innovative repurposing of tools for accessibility purposes is common in disability spaces. Sometimes no viable product exists at all, and at other times the commercial version comes with an “accessibility tax” that makes it far too expensive.
Take, for example, people with disabilities who started using iPads as communication tools instead of cumbersome and expensive purpose-built tools covered by Medicaid. The Allora Speech Generating Device, for example, starts at $6,000. An iPad Mini can cost less than one-tenth the price, with no lengthy delivery time and a much easier interface. Buying a robot vacuum cleaner can cost a few hundred dollars, which more than pays for itself when the owner doesn’t have to rely on an aide to do light housekeeping.
The internet makes it easier than ever for context to be stripped away
The internet can have a flattening effect on the way humans view each other. On social media, people jostle for the most memeable, shareable, viral content, and don’t consider the consequences. Sauder notes, for example, that a tweet making fun of peeled and packaged oranges has gained notoriety multiple times, even after people with disabilities have criticized the sentiment behind the original “joke.” Each time it pops up in Sauder’s timeline under a new name, it goes viral all over again.
It’s easy to strip content of both context and empathy, whether intentionally or otherwise. And with the speed of distribution and the internet’s love of screenshots, everything is forever. When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.
When viral content dips into commentary about people’s identities, it can take on sinister overtones that cut both ways — a tweet mocking a low-vision person reading a book on the train can hurt just as much as inspiration porn that uses people with disabilities as Very Special Object Lessons. (Think “what’s your excuse” posters featuring disabled athletes, or “heartwarming” viral stories about disabled children.)
For the disability community, that thing the internet mocks may be a lifeline. And pushing back on these attitudes, Sauder says, can be exhausting.
Imagine losing the use of your left arm in a stroke and then seeing people mock the buttoners, zipper pulls, and other tools you use to get dressed one-handed. It’s not just that people with disabilities have a use for items like these and are tired of hearing that they’re wasteful or silly: When the need for such products is called into question, it can exacerbate social divides that contribute to larger policy issues that keep people with disabilities from public life, whether it’s the frenzied call for straw bans, claims that complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act is too onerous, or applying work requirements to Medicaid.
A sock slider, it turns out, is never just a sock slider.