The target for assistive technology shouldn’t be ‘everyday man’ it should be Iron Man

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[Pat Starace’s] Iron Man inspired 3D printed hand and forearm are a perfect example of such personality and expert engineering… with an added dash of hacker flair.

The target for assistive technology shouldn’t be ‘everyday man’ it should be Iron Man

The examples in this post are largely (but NOT completely) tongue in cheek.  I would, however, like to be clear that there is a serious point to be made here.

I see a lot of assistive technology of the form  “Now this person in a wheelchair can get in and out of bed without problems”.  Many of them I really like such as: “Now this person can eat cornflakes”.

It regularly strikes me that this is something of a false target. I can hand on heart tell you that, in all my life, I have never wanted to be ordinary. I have *been* ordinary regularly. Many, many, many times I’ve failed to reach the standard of ‘average’, but it’s never been the target.

I mildly object to the idea that an assistive technologist goes up to a person with a disability and says “my dream is to make you ordinary”.

There are two problems. Taking my brother Richard as an example. To make him ‘ordinary’ (and I tense up to write this), we’d have to push the state of the art so far as to be unbelievable.  He would need an entirely new set of custom equipment, training, and practices every single time we tried something new, or experimented – it’s never going to happen. Aiming for ordinary is going to miss because there is quite so much not-ordinary.

The other thing is that it’s a very odd place to stop. Why not even the odds? Two of my grandparents used wheelchairs as they aged. Quite often people would ignore them and talk to the person pushing the wheelchair. I understand this is a pretty common problem.

Terribly, my instinctive solution to the issue is to weaponise…
If electric wheelchairs came with Taser weapons (presumably charged from the main battery), then I suspect that
  1. people using them would feel safer and
  2. people would be much more inclined to get the hell out of the way.  

AAC devices that included Airhorns would certainly solve the problem of AAC-users being ignored (it turns out I underestimated the internet on this one…). I’ve talked before about being in favour of blind people having guns. Crutches with pepper spray would change the incentives for bullies on the street.

I like to think that the point of assitive technology was to level the playing field. You will never level the playing field by just picking the six everyday activities and making them ‘normal’ (although we should definitely still be doing this, it’s important) you level the playing field by pushing beyond.

Best illustrated, of course, by the classic:


I’m reminded of what I wrote when Disneyland altered its special needs access

Disney World is one of my little brother’s favourite things. Particularly the rides. And I can accept that it’s not particularly fair on non-disabled people if someone is always jumping the queue, I’ve felt fairly embarrassed accompanying my brother. But my view has always been this: if you tot up all the unfairness in the world that’s faced by the people jumping the queue, against the people standing in it, then I’ve always felt that Disney was doing its bit to settle the score. And that a day in Disney World really was some of the happiest, and most ‘normal’ time we spent as a family.

Assistive technology shouldn’t be aiming for this (although it should be proud of every gain it makes):

Image from:
Image from:


It should be aiming for this:

EDIT – I should note that I’ve moved, to a certain extent away from working to build flashy new things myself, but I’d still like to see the people in area having a bit more of an ambition.  And this movement is largely because my interests centre on intellectual disability. If Richard was an amputee you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be building a Jaeger in the back yard.

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