Thursday, 5 April 2012

Accessibility: it's an engineering problem

    A  little over a week ago, the British paralympian athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson gave an interview in which she decried the state of accessibility for people with disabilities in the UK and described the experience of having to crawl off a train because the rail employees who had been booked to provide her with a ramp had failed to materialise.
    It has been interesting to watch the commentary unfold over the intervening days. On one hand we have seen many other stories from people with disabilities of being denied the use of services, of being stranded or of being forced to great inconvenience to gain access to things which should be as easy for them as for anyone else. Meanwhile there has been a chorus of discontent from the kind of people who read the Daily Mail, who see the disabled as a fantastically privileged minority who have vast amounts of hard-working able-bodied people's money squandered on them and should accept their lot and stop whinging. To paraphrase one of their battle cries: "If being disabled is so good, why don't you go and live the dream!".
    It's slightly uncomfortable to realise that while the experiences of the people with disabilities are unfortunately too real, there is also a germ of truth in the root of the bitterness from Mail readers. As a country, we have spent a vast amount of money over the last couple of decades on improving accessibility, so where have we failed?
    An exercise I would counsel anyone able-bodied to try is to accompany a wheelchair user across a British city. A simple walk becomes a lengthy traverse; it is sobering to realise how many wheelchair obstacles you pass on foot without realising it.
    Meanwhile the world is festooned with dubious paraphernalia with the aim of improving accessibility. Cash machines have been moved closer to the ground without a thought being given as to whether they need redesigning for use from a perspective of someone with limited mobility or reach. Small business premises sport unused ramps, electric lifts, and disabled toilets used only as dusty storage rooms.
    One is left with the feeling that a vast exercise in box-ticking has been completed. Everywhere has 'done' accessibility because they have the ramps, signs, and lifts to prove it, yet real-world accessibility for people with disabilities remains as elusive as ever.
    I look at this and see not an accessibility problem but an engineering problem. Of course Tanni Grey-Thompson was let down by the rail company, but was the real failure not in the equipment she was provided with? It seems inconceivable that in an age in which we can create robots that can travel to Mars and operate autonomously for years at a time, yet we can't design a lightweight personal mobility aid for someone in a wheelchair that is capable of letting them traverse the kind of step you might encounter between a train and a platform or anywhere else. The Mars robots definitely are rocket science, the mobility aid definitely isn't! Or it shouldn't be, anyway.
    Of course, we engineers have a major failing, we see everything as an engineering problem, we live in a black-and-white world. Engineering can't always fix social or political problems. But engineering is nothing if it isn't the art of making machines to solve physical problems in the real world, and rather evidently the engineering available to people with disabilities isn't fit for purpose. By my observation the basic design of a wheelchair hasn't changed in many decades, is this really a technology that's reached its zenith?
    Perhaps if our Government had spent less time and money patting itself on the back for a successful but ultimately useless box-ticking exercise and instead invested in research and NHS funding for mobility aids that allowed people with disabilities to render some of their accessibility problems irrelevant, there would be no need for any of this. People with disabilities would be able to go where they wanted and get on with their lives just like anyone else.
   But why on earth would any politician want to do that, it wouldn't win any votes from Mail readers, would it!


  1. I agree with most of this, and certainly the logic behind it. You'll be pleased to hear that there is, in fact, engineering work being done in some of these areas. As a wheelchair user myself I'm really looking forward to the day when I can afford an exoskeleton like Hal here - - and given the cost reductions that can be expected with mass production, it should soon cost the same as an electric wheelchair. Continually improving battery technology should further improve its useability.

    Of course, none of this will help me on those days when I'm just too sick to go out, and when assessing the economic issues around disability it's important to remember that many disabled people also have illnesses that make life difficult for them in other ways. This isn't a reason not to act, but it does require consideration, even from an engineering perspective - for instance, I can't use the kind of ramps that one has to go down backwards because I'd throw up.

  2. Now that really *is* a "The future's here" piece of kit! Let's hope it's a technology that improves and cheapens, as you say.

    However there is mild danger of falling into another engineer's trap: that of throwing our highest tech at the problem when we might achieve more with extremely elegantly applied affordable low-tech.

    I'd hope a competent engineer would research their customers to the extent that they'd not create solutions that "solve" the problem but only at the expense of something like your backwards-ramp issue. But sadly we can sometimes be good at missing the point, can't we.